This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on February 19, 2016.
Never before have I felt that the voices of the unconnected could be louder than those of the connected, considering we are in the digital era. On 8 February, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) announced its decision on net neutrality and differential pricing, and released a new set of regulations. The new regulations are classified as “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016”. The regulations are extremely simple, straightforward and brief:
*No service provider can offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content;
*No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation;
*Reduced tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, or at times of public emergency has been permitted;
*Financial disincentives for contravention of the regulation have also been specified.
Essentially, Trai has rebuked telecom service providers (TSPs) and the likes of Facebook Inc. which had introduced Free Basics as a content service in the name of providing free access to the Internet. Trai has taken a common sense approach. By not allowing TSPs to meddle with content, it has followed democratic principles. It also indicates that content providers and access providers cannot join hands and trouble customers by trading them among themselves.
Interestingly, if we look at why and how Trai came to its decision—which is being seen as populist, democratic, and typical of India—there are five milestones I can think of. And these milestones are recent and unusual because, frankly speaking, differential pricing had been in practice for a long time and even respected entities like Wikipedia had been using zero ratings, also known as sponsored data on a network as part of content sources selected by the operator and made available optionally to users at a lower cost or completely free of charge. I was, in fact, shocked to see how there was no agitation earlier against telecom companies using differential rating for subscribers who wanted to use services such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
The sequence of events that led to the Net neutrality regulations is as follows:
*Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visits India, landing in a village called Chandauli in Alwar district of Rajasthan. The visit, covered by Time magazine, sounded to millions of Indians that the latter would truly be providing a billion unconnected people with much-needed Internet connections with desirable bandwidth, even on mobile phones.
*Facebook launches Internet.org, later rebranded as Free Basics, a free-to-use service for those subscribed to a certain TSP. It nearly forces Facebook users to sign in favour of Free Basics, creating serious doubts among the Internet fraternity and even among Facebook users about the intentions of the social networking platform.
*A multi-stakeholder group called Save the Internet mobilizes voices against all attempts to violate Net neutrality.
*The final blow: The Rs.300-crore advertisements blitz to support Free Basics. It ended up badly, reversely affecting and educating millions about how Facebook was lying to its users, besides creating increased awareness about zero rating, differential pricing and net neutrality.
*The last milestone in the Net neutrality journey was the appointment of R.S. Sharma as the chairman of Trai. He is one of those bureaucrats who has worked on the ground, understands the meaning of access to masses and how badly India needs to connect its mass population.
Sharma was not swayed by the impressive reasoning and voices of telecom companies; he did not feel under pressure by Facebook’s Rs.300 crore advertising push; he did not get intimidated by the fact that our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Facebook headquarters during his US trip.
He simply focused to listen to one voice—the voice of those who are not online, who suffer day in and day out because of being digitally excluded, who need to be connected to access government services, who need to be connected to be an equal citizen of the digital era.
In effect, Sharma truly wanted to make the government’s Digital India programme successful and that could have only been possible if we had “non-interfered” Internet for all. Now that the differential pricing is barred, zero rating is prohibited, Free Basics is history, and Net neutrality is not something we can think of violating easily, how does the decision help India where more than 80% of the country is yet to be connected to the Internet?
Well, in a scenario where telecom service providers cannot play with the consumers or cross-trade content and services, we are going to have rapid proliferation of digital content and services, Internet applications, mobile apps, start-ups and entrepreneurs.
Another thing I foresee is major innovation in last-mile connectivity, something like using unlicensed spectrum, or creating village, panchayat and block-level TSPs and Internet service providers. Another major push would be of the Internet going to millions of micro-enterprises where the use of Internet will help their businesses and connect them to consumers beyond geographies. And finally, e-governance and citizen governance is going to be more proliferated to reach people at large.
In a scenario where TSPs feel they have lost their battle of Internet proliferation, I would like to suggest them to join the National Optic Fiber Network movement of the government of India to not only make it a success but also take the responsibility of opening their services to government local bodies and localised small NGOs.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. Tweet him @osamamanzar