Saturday, January 10, 2015

Net neutrality makes internet valuable

Net neutrality is being threatened in India by mobile phone companies

Your telephone is valuable because it is phone neutral
Won't it be distasteful if your phone company refused to connect you to your bank if your bank had not paid up a special subscription to allow you and its other customers to talk to it? What if your phone company insisted that you talk only to the bank that is their partner company or has paid them for customers to call them? What if your phone company insisted that it was paid a percentage of the transactions you made over your phone, just as your credit card company does? Or it simply decided to charge you different rates for different calls based on whom you called; or whether it was casual, commercial, to call centres or an automated recording?
Absurd, you might say. I would not subscribe to a telephone company that does this. That is just because you are used to the idea of phone neutrality.
As long as your telephone company regards you as their customer it will make no sense to them to indulge in this behaviour. By indulging in such tactics they would simply not fulfil your need to access your bank, or for that matter anyone. It would be an act of charity, or complete incomprehension, on the part of any customers to subscribe to such services.
Any violation of phone neutrality simply means giving up on us as customers, either through ignorance or through intent. No phone company has provided phone neutrality out of charity to its customers; they simply serviced our need because while doing so they could continue to make profits from satisfying our needs. In fact, phones would not have penetrated the market as fast and as much had phone neutrality not existed.
Your Internet is valuable because it is net neutral
Won't it be distasteful if you are prevented access to a whole lot of websites if those who host the websites had not paid your Internet Service Provider to carry their content? Or if your ISP insisted you use their search engine or one their sister company owns, because Google or Yahoo or Duck Duck Go have not paid them for traffic? Or they insisted that for all bills you had paid online, you needed to provide them with a percentage, just as your credit card company does? Or it decides to charge you different rates for data, audio, video, geographical information, encrypted traffic or commercial transactions?
Now, that is exactly what is at stake when, right at our doorstep in India, net neutrality is threatened by mobile phone companies and global partnerships seeking to make the Internet accessible to everyone. In the case of the former, the argument is loss of revenue from telephony and in the latter the argument is cheap Internet for all. Did we ban cell-phones because they ate landline revenues? Also, is it not true that many of the mobile players complaining loss of revenue are actually making up by charging for the Internet? Would you like a cheap phone connection that connects you to a bank you do not wish to bank with? Or one that connects you to telemarketers but not your friends and family?
The ISPs that are promoting to end net neutrality are giving up on us consumers of the Internet as customers. They no longer wish to serve our need to access any website, consume any content or transact on any website. They suddenly see the website hosts, content hosts and e-commerce and e-government hosts as their customers, who must also pay to allow consumers access their websites.
Clearly, the ISPs pushing to end net neutrality do not understand its business value.
The long tail of net neutrality
One of the most interesting fallouts of net neutrality from an economic standpoint is its ability to open a huge market of niche services and products that have very low demand. This has been recognised as the long tail and as being larger than the market of a few services or products that are in high demand. A homestay in Gadchiroli? Amateur music from a remote and hardly known artist? An exotic fruit from Meghalaya? Home-made pickle from a family outlet? A fruit-picking festival in an unknown farm? Including this long tail in the economy can potentially double India's GDP. The net neutral Internet provides a level field to those who offer such niche services or products.
Rural India, when connected, would really have many niche services and products on offer that have low demand. The net neutral web opens up possibilities for millions.
An Internet without net neutrality will make niche markets unviable and restrict the economic growth to the growth of the traditional few services and products in high demand.
Phone penetration
Telephones spread in India not because banks wanted to reach out to their customers. They spread because customers wanted to reach banks, retailers, friends, relatives and participate in a remote conversation.
If somewhere in the early years of telephony, phone neutrality had been compromised to allow telephone companies to earn more revenues from banks, retailers and other commercial interests in telemarketing, telephones would not have penetrated to even half as many people as they have. If phone neutrality had been done away to make cheap telemarketing devices be available to the masses they would have lost their value and significance long ago. Through wisdom or chance successive governments have preserved the value of phone neutrality.
Internet penetration
As the government toys with an ambition to reach Internet to the masses, there could be one best way to kill the plan. End net neutrality. Without net neutrality the value of Internet collapses rapidly to negative. The Internet is valuable not because your bank can reach you but because you can choose which bank to access.
The Internet serves the need of providing a level-playing-field in a world that is full of unequal opportunity. Without net neutrality there is no level playing field. While a Netflix can pay an ISP to stream its videos, the amateur film-maker from Kankona cannot. While the Amazons and Flickrs can pay the ISP from their e-commerce, the garage start-up from Dindori or Cherrapunji cannot.
Without its ability to provide, protect and nourish the level-playing field, the Internet would surely lose its value. As long as the people are customers of the Internet it would be a mistake to forget this need that the Internet serves.
A government strategy to reach Internet to the masses would clearly need to focus on protecting net neutrality. For the masses, Internet access will continue to mean mobile Internet. For the privileged, it will be Internet on the move. Without net neutrality, neither have any value. As was done by the Dutch, post offices offer a terrific way to provide Internet access to those who are occasional consumers seeking equal opportunity to connect to a level-playing field.
Technologies of broadband over power lines (BPL) have shown promise in the US, Europe and even South-Asian countries to reach Internet to every home. Industry experts have highlighted that BPL holds great promise as a ubiquitous broadband solution that would offer a viable alternative to cable, digital subscriber line, fibre, and wireless broadband solutions.
Powerline Internet highways to rural India ensure that it is not just Internet connectivity but reliable power is available to every family across India. If it is government power
lines rather than the fibre of ISPs that carry broadband, net neutrality can be protected.
Irrespective of the broadband technologies deployed the protection of net neutrality will be the deciding factor of the expansion and value of an information superhighway.

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