Net Neutrality, being a good person and all that stuff.
Some things sounds so nice to propagate. It’d be nicer still if we could walk to the talk. Net neutrality is one such item. Like love, friendship, good parenting and good citizenry, no one will generally object to it. But the god is in the details.
Net neutrality - everyone should get equal access and speed for their packets - in a first-come-first-served basis to reach anywhere they want to...on the net.The way the government and citizens act upon their belief on the matter is as under :
i) The government auctions licenses to operate to bidders. The government, through its minister, has also said they believe its a necessity for a free democracy-
(“It (Internet) belongs to entire humanity and not to a few," http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/46913383.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst)
So why is a universal right pre-emptively taxed like hell through auction licenses?
Highest taxes win. Before the network is even established. Lets contrast this with roads, the net is a virtual road. Roads are auctioned out to:
- the lowest cost bidder
- who can build to a specific standard and availability
- within a time frame defined up front
Telecom related licenses go :
d. to the highest bidder (ISPs excluded). When the latest round happened, the government already knew that Skype, whatsapp, Viber and several other services provided VoIP voice services - that would be cheaper for citizens and reduce revenues. They still set the base price on a context that may have been valid in 1994 - when it all started. Wow!
e. there is no availability criteria. Even today, providers routinely refuse coverage of certain areas - sometimes because they’re full up and other times, its not worth their while. This is in a city not the 7 persons per square kilometer area infested with snakes and disaster prone.
f. there are no defined time frames for anything.
g. there are no enforcements, in meaningful terms, of any standards. Call drops on mobile phones are about 1 per minute, internet speeds (wireless) are most of the time quite pathetic. The only time that there is absolute clarity and high speed - are in the advertisements and in movies. Can you recollect a single time when the hoodlum boss says“abhi thok do” on his mobile and the henchman says “kya, kya..theek se sunayee nahi de raha hai”?.
Meanwhile, the government is sitting on unspent amounts of nearly Rs 35,000 crores in the USO Fund. Created (http://www.usof.gov.in/usof-cms/usof_fundstatus.htm) with much fanfare, it lies unused while several areas remained uncovered by a necessity for a vibrant democracy.
A critical mass about the debate was reached on Airtel Zero’s plan. It essentially allowed some websites to pay the carrier for surfing time and not others. A toll free number. There are several pros and cons downstream for such an arrangement - imagine if Google paid for your surfing time - that’d shut out all competition. By itself, the telco has innovated to guarantee extra income.
No one asked a key question, however, is why the government can’t pay for citizens’ surfing time on its public services delivery? After all the auctioned fees paid are built into the costs of the system. If not a toll free access, then atleast a flat fee access - low and to ensure that fast system response speed is the govt’s responsibility.
Citizens making the maximum noise are the Facebook, Twitter using variety. Neither qualify as essential services - any more than ice-cream or music videos do. No one has asked why say, a student’s online classroom quality is suffering, or an important application form or railway booking for a rural citizen is being held up because critical apps like selfies and AIB roast videos are hogging all the bandwidth. I’d be willing to bet, on a random analysis of data (govt is snooping anyway, as are the like of Google and Facebook) will reveal a proportion higher than 75% for purely entertainment and social use.
We haven’t made a noise about :
- Call drops
- Erratic net speeds vis-a-vis committed on contracts
- Why roaming charges are exorbitant when the technology makes the definition of telecom “circles” just another piece of government defined sloth. In fact, the government had taken telcos to court for sharing spectrum licensed to them in a circle with other operators to provide seamless roaming. “How dare you provide better services with innovative use of spectrum?”. But that’s a topic for another day.
- Why its taken about 10 years to act upon number portability? The mobile telephone number acts, de facto, like an internal passport in India for usage of a variety of services including banking, email accounts and so on. Telecom companies were virtually holding disgruntled customers hostage due to the number.
- Why isn’t the government, on a defined time frame, putting everything it can possibly can, on the net? For citizen access and business access. What simpler way to reduce corruption, than track all this and nail the bottlenecks?
Meanwhile, there is the technology domain where a lot of evil things can run amok that no one may know about. Lets list a few :
i) Your internet provider may anyway classify different users and assign different data pipes and priority. In return for this, a content provider (say www.SomethingToSell.com) pays 6x of normal web hosting fees - its a private transaction that doesn’t need disclosure. For a long time, voice and data follow different paths - the former needs urgency of completion and the latter needs accuracy.
ii) Various filters - including those placed by snooping agencies, may anyway slow down your access. If the snooper doesn’t have sufficient capacity or is not smartly programmed. This happens anyway with a standard anti-virus programme on your device!
The biggest protection against all this is multiple choice of access providers and their inability to cartelize. Plan B will be to treat it completely as a utility and live with the so-far, below par performance on electricity supply, water and sewerage and even roads. None of which, by the way, have any time frame for completion, availability or enforceable standards at the your place of work or residence. There were procedural delays, you see. Guess who controls the procedures?
Meanwhile an activist group is rumored to be planning a new music track called “Internet for Nothing”...which begins with “I want my FB and G”. We certainly are in dire straits.