On the road from Internet to Neutral Net 

  • August 2, 2017
  • 3 mins read

Over the last 6 years, I have constantly worked with the Department of Telecom to ensure that regulations are up to date with the current business trends and needs. While we have always got a sympathetic ear from the authorities, what happened on the 25th of July, 2017 was a giant leap. 

Open House discussion on Net Neutrality

The top leadership of TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) flew down to meet folks in Bangalore to conduct an open house discussion on net neutrality. It was a delightful surprise to see TRAI take out time to talk to folks who have been championing this cause. Not only was their participation from industry folks but the discussion also saw a healthy mix of people from academia IISc, IITs, etc. 

Net neutrality as a fundamental right

When I think of net neutrality, I think of it in the context of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Let me explain this further. Reasonable access to information formulates a person’s speech and expression. The right to information may be thought of as an appendix to this fundamental right. There is no better medium than the internet itself when it comes to accessing information. As a philosophy, net neutrality should be offered as a fundamental right, and in doing so, we will elevate the conversation to a much higher level. 

What does net neutrality mean for entrepreneurs?

Thinking of net neutrality as a fundamental right is not to say that we give it a socialist fabric. It does not go to say that this will stifle the development of innovative business models. Entrepreneurs do and will continue to have opportunities to run and come up with newer innovative business models. 

Let’s take the example of the bottled water industry in the US. It is perfectly fine for people to drink water out of the tap in most of the US. But last year alone, there were 50 billion bottles of mineral water sold there. It is a thriving business. 

There is a confusion that prevails widely today. And that confusion is because of lack of understanding of a simple difference. Classification (emergency services vs. ease of access), differentiation (app for video vs message) and discrimination (allowing one while curtailing another) the three are different and can not be thought of as being the same. 

My observations on factors that can influence net neutrality

1. The advent of 5G will have an interesting effect on net neutrality. The reason for this is that network slicing is now a possibility. There is already some interesting work happening in Europe on this topic.

2. TRAI is not looking at applying net neutrality principles to private networks (Closed Electronic Communication Networks (CECN)), and this makes sense. For example, think, VoIP inside the building or a peer to peer/MPLS connection. However, what is not clear right now to me is the behaviour of these networks in a wireless world. These will just be virtual entities that still use the public spectrum and network. 

3. Think of CUGs or Closed user groups. All these SIMs have phone numbers from the national numbering plan. How can an enterprise keep data flowing through this CUG sims and still keep it out of bounds for the rest of the world? 

4. As operators increasingly get into content and devices, it is easy for them to create extensive walled gardens where only their apps and content may be allowed.  An entire operator’s network including all their subscribers cannot be called as a private network. If this happens, it will be a serious violation of net neutrality. 

How do we take this to the next steps

The talk on net neutrality has been lingering on for about a couple of years now, and I feel it is crucial that we take a point of view so that things are set in motion. A collaborative framework should not result in inaction. 

It is one thing to come up with the principles to safeguard net neutrality, but it is another to enforce them.  Micro-managing activity on the internet is not the best use of anyone’s time. Given the complexity of today’s internet, TRAI needs help from the public to implement some of these principles. 

A user group of enthusiasts comprising of IT administrators of companies would be the perfect ambassadors of net neutrality. 

Manisha Mishra

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