Trai upholds freedom

NET NEUTRALITY

For the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, taking a decision to uphold freedom of Internet with a clarity of this kind was not easy.

The issue of Net Neutrality was not all that easy to comprehend for a common man just about a few months ago. Yet, it has been settled in India, at least for now, after one of the most fierce debates fought on all forms of media platforms – print, electronics and most importantly the social media.

For the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), taking a decision to up-hold the freedom of internet with a clarity of this kind was not easy in the face of a Facebook public relations exercise which stretched from hosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi by its Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to an estimated Rs 200-300 crore media blitzkrieg in support of its Free Basics offerings.  

It centred around  the Facebook  taking almost upon itself to connect one billion Indians with internet and making a difference to the lives of uneducated farmers or innocent villagers reaching out to the world, courtesy Zuckerberg.

The campaign sought to create an impression as if India’s poor and lower middle class cannot afford the internet packs offered by independent telecom service providers (TSPs) and this digital divide can be bridged only by initiative like Free Basics which gave free data to the Reli-ance (R-Com) subscribers for surfing the web sites or using apps, including Facebook, through an exclusive platform.

The way netizens reacted and grouped themselves to take on the might of  Facebook without spending beyond their time online has clearly demonstrated why Silicon Valley associates itself so closely with brains in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Gurgaon and Pune besides the country’s IITs and other front-ranking engineering institutions which have produced the likes of Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella.

India may not have yet reached the billion mark in the internet subscribers’ base but led by mobility, the threshold has been well crossed in the number of telephone customers who are fast scaling up the wall of data services.

At the last count given by Telecom and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad , the number of internet users has reached 400 million. This number is more than the US population and is not equal to “none” as suggested by Marc Andreesen, Facebook board member whose frustration on stopping Free Basics by India is quite understandable.

This is where lie big stakes for FB-WhatsApp, Twitter, Google and Netflix besides the multinational and home-bred TSPs. It would not be too long before   India catches up on  data services taking the number of Internet users to the magic figure of one billion.

The sense of urgency to make inroads into the fast expanding Indian telecom and IT market is all the more visible in the face of demand slowdown in China and the continuous saturation in the developed countries. Look at the way Twitter is struggling with a flat growth in the user base and 70% erosion in its share price. Where else there is a completely  untapped market of 600 million, and partially tapped  market of 400 million of the existing data users.   

Fiercely priced offerings

The way Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking interest in pursuing the Digital India drive and the way the incumbent telcos including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and BSNL are responding with fiercely priced offerings encompassing 3G and 4G speed is a teaser for the big bang entry of Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Jio which is combining itself with younger Ambani-run RCom for the launch of Internet driven services.

The Jio services are expected to be aggressive in pricing with wide coverage. Exciting times are ahead of us holding potential for a tremendous growth with voice and data penetrating deep into the entire value chain of entertainment, e-commerce, financial services, governance, health and education.

The multiplier economic impact would go well beyond the turnover of the TSPs and social media corporations.  The data usage and billing can vary between Rs 50 and Rs 5,000 a month and it would not be wide off the mark if an average of Rs 200-300 is taken. This itself would amount to a monthly tariff increase of Rs 20,000 crore-Rs 30,000 crore if the country could enrol one billion data users.

On top of it, there would be a positive spiral for a whole lot of businesses riding on the Net. But what holds key to this is the internet and that explains the desire by the big firms to control the most important resource providing the information highways and sideways all connecting the young and aspiring Indian consumer to the rest of the world.

Unassuming Trai Chairman Ram Sewak Sharma has earned a tremendous goodwill not only for himself but also the Modi government by setting the example for the rest of the world how it is possible to stand up to brazen commercial interest for the sake of over a billion Indians who look up to the great creation of Internet for realising their aspirations.
The task is not yet over for Sharma, who knows how in the days and months to come the TSPs and partners will try and bye-pass the Trai regulation disallowing zero-rating or discriminatory pricing through means such as closed electronic networks.

Some of the ingenious minds, reports suggest, have already started working around apps or solutions which can qualify as closed networks. The TSPs in collusion with social media giants could resort to other tools which, as Sharma himself has recognised, in the form of putting the preferred content sites on faster speed and leaving the rest in the words of digital ghettos.

But for now, the message has gone loud and clear. India provides internet independence and its policies have not been economically catastrophic. Instead, the Indian economy is growing at the fastest pace in the world.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry