Go to any country in the world and you will find that the biggest racket there is the telecommunications industry. More specifically, the mobile operators. Listing the ways in which they have stifled innovation would make for a neat little e-book. They are panicking as their little honeymoon is coming to an end with the rise of the smartphone and the vast ecosystem of apps accompanying it. Instead of finding other ways to survive and prosper, the lazy operators are doing what they are used to doing, which is, trying to rewrite the rules to suit themselves. This time, it could be a fatal step for everything we cherish about, the Internet.
Many leading mobile operators around the world had announced plans to charge extra for using VOIP services like Viber and Skype to make voice and video calls over their network before dropping them because of protests on social media. This would have been outrageous on a number of levels. For one, the company would be charging the same customers twice for using the same data. It would be undermining its users’ privacy by trying to differentiate between traffic. More importantly, it would have gone against the basic building block of the Internet that all traffic should be treated equally. By charging extra for some data, the telecom operator was trying to shoot the Net Neutrality debate in the head even before it started in this country.
Net Neutrality is a debate that has been raging in more developed nations for sometime now. A few months ago, President of the United States Barack Obama came down firmly on the side of keeping the Internet neutral as opposed to charging different prices for different services.
The concept is all the more important in a country like India with a budding startup scene and with dreams of becoming the next tech super power. The millions of people in the country getting their first smartphones and finding out the benefits of Internet will find the costs too
prohibitive if carriers are allowed to charge different prices for different services. All those millions coming in and a large chunk of the existing millions migrating from the desktop to the mobile phone will give telecom operators enough power to dictate terms to tech companies if they are allowed to differentiate between traffic.
Above everything else, it will also cut the innovation coming from the country in the bud. When three youngsters created a new video streaming service called YouTube in 2005, it was able to get popular and become what it is today because all the traffic on the Internet was treated equally. If telecom operators have their way, 10 years from now, a better competitor to YouTube that comes out of Hyderabad or Bengaluru will never be able to compete because it won’t be able to pay the prices demanded by the telcos to keep its traffic fast enough on the Internet.
TRAI chief Rahul Khullar has already gone on record saying that there is nothing wrong with VOIP plans as ‘there is no set rule or any framework which states that Net Neutrality should be maintained’. Getting those rules and frameworks in place should be the priority of the present government.
If the Net Neutrality debate in western countries has shown anything at all, it is that mobile corporations will keep trying to undermine it. There is only one solution and that is strong legislation.
Matham is a tech geek.
Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham