Enabling telcos to recoup network expenses while ensuring equitable access to all: Way to Net Neutrality

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

The future of the internet in India hinges on our ability to navigate the complexities of net neutrality and network investment. The fair share model presents a promising framework for achieving this balance.

In the dynamic landscape of modern connectivity, our digital habits have undergone a profound evolution. From virtual meetings to streaming services, our reliance on data has surged, fuelled by technological advancements and the promise of even faster networks on the horizon.

As we stand at the cusp of 5G and anticipate the advent of 6G, a fundamental question arises: how can we ensure a level playing field where innovation thrives and access remains equitable for all?

This conversation, spanning over three decades, is anchored in the principles of net neutrality – a concept pivotal to the democratic fabric of the internet. At its core, net neutrality advocates for an open, unbiased cyberspace where all digital content, regardless of its source or nature, is treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The Birth of Net Neutrality
The concept of net neutrality can be traced back to 2003, when Columbia University Professor Tim Wu, in his seminal paper, envisioned a public information network that thrives on impartiality. According to Wu, the true value of such a network lies in its ability to offer uniform access to all websites, applications and platforms, devoid of any preferential treatment.

This foundational tenet asserts that ISPs must provide access to all sites, content and applications at the same speed, under the same conditions, without blocking or prioritizing any specific content.

Net neutrality safeguards the internet as a platform for innovation. By fostering an environment where diverse applications compete for user attention based solely on their merit, it upholds the principles of fairness and competition in the digital realm.

The Indian Context
India’s approach to internet governance stems from its history of telecommunications, being treated as a publicly provided commodity.

This journey began in 1995 with Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VNL), a government-owned provider, sowing the seeds of digital connectivity. Just three years later, the private sector joined the fold, and by 1999, the New Telecom Policy (NTP) announced by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) categorized internet services under telecommunications.

This meant internet providers were subject to the same regulations as traditional phone companies and permitted cellular mobile service providers to offer data services alongside voice services.

Against this regulatory backdrop, concerns about potential discrimination by ISPs against competing applications or content fuelled discussions around net neutrality. Globally, various practices emerged where internet providers offered preferential treatment to specific platforms and services. These included “sponsored data” schemes, where a third party would pay for users’ data consumption of a particular service, and zero-rating practices, where certain applications or content did not count towards a user’s data cap. These practices raised concerns about stifling innovation and creating an uneven playing field.

In 2008, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Four Freedoms of the Internet, guaranteeing freedom of access, application usage, device attachment, and service plan information for consumers – all cornerstones of net neutrality. However, India lacked such a legal framework at the time.

Recognizing these emerging issues and the regulatory gap, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper in 2015 and DoT formed a committee to study the issue of net neutrality. This move garnered support from Free Software Movement of India (FSMI) groups advocating for an open internet.

TRAI’s Landmark Decision: Protecting Net Neutrality
TRAI’s landmark decision in 2016, enacting the “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016,” marked a pivotal moment for Net Neutrality in India. The regulations upheld the principle of non-discriminatory data pricing, ensuring equal treatment of all internet traffic irrespective of its content.

The regulations addressed the various forms of differential tariff schemes implemented by telecom companies, acknowledging both their potential benefits and drawbacks. While such schemes might superficially make internet access more affordable by reducing costs for certain types of content, they also carried the risk of classifying subscribers based on their desired content and potentially disadvantaging smaller content providers.

This had the potential to stifle innovation and create entry barriers, ultimately undermining the core principles of net neutrality.

Fair Share: A Solution for a Sustainable Future
The question remains: how do we ensure equitable access to the internet while fostering innovation within the telecom sector? While TRAI’s regulations ensure equitable access, the problem of high infrastructure costs and network expansion remains a constant challenge, potentially stifling innovation on the part of telecom companies.

In this context, the fair share model emerges as a compelling solution to strike a balance between equitable access and fostering innovation.

Unlike discriminatory pricing schemes that target specific content, fair share addresses the broader issue of network costs by proposing proportionate, non-discriminatory charges on users with large volumes of outgoing internet traffic, known as Large Traffic Generators (LTGs).

These LTGs, typically video streaming services, social media platforms, and cloud storage providers, generate a significant amount of data traffic that burdens network infrastructure.

By implementing a fair share model, telecom operators can recoup their network expenses without resorting to discriminatory practices. This ensures continued investment in network infrastructure, ultimately benefiting all users by enabling faster speeds, greater capacity, and improved network reliability.

Moreover, the fair share model fosters a level playing field within the digital ecosystem. It does not discriminate based on the type of content being accessed but rather focuses on data usage patterns. This means that smaller digital platforms, which may not have the same data footprint as established players, are not disadvantaged. Instead, platforms that generate significant data traffic contribute proportionally to maintaining and expanding the network they heavily rely on.

In this way, the “fair share” concept proposes a solution that upholds net neutrality while acknowledging network management realities. Drawing inspiration from Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas on fair allocation of public resources, it suggests a two-tiered system. Everyone receives a baseline level of bandwidth, ensuring equal access to information.

However, platforms generating significant data traffic beyond this baseline, like video streaming services, could contribute proportionally to network upkeep and expansion. This contribution could take various forms, including direct financial payments or collaboration with ISPs to optimize data usage.

Unlike discriminatory pricing schemes that stifle innovation and favour established players, fair share distribution promotes transparency and equity within the digital ecosystem.

The Path Forward: Collaboration for a Thriving Digital India
The future of the internet in India hinges on our ability to navigate the complexities of net neutrality and network investment. The fair share model presents a promising framework for achieving this balance.

By ensuring equitable access for all users while enabling telecom companies to recoup their network expenses, it lays the foundation for a thriving digital India. However, this path forward requires ongoing collaboration between policymakers, regulators, telecom operators, content providers, and users.

Open communication and a commitment to shared objectives will be crucial in refining the fair share model and adapting it to the evolving digital landscape.