Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let Neutrality not lead to Mediocrity

Recently, Thomas K Thomas of Hindu Business Line wrote an article regarding the Net Neutrality issue that is being debated in several countries and was introduced into the Broadband debate in India by Google. While TKT was kind enough to quote my views, there's only so much one can express in a quote. Therefore, this post to elaborate on the quote:

But Indian telecom operators are not in favour of any such regulation.  Srinivasa Addepalli, Senior Vice-President, Corporate Strategy, Tata Communication, says that more than it being a question of principles it is a commercial issue. “It is fair that consumers should have unrestricted access to the Internet. It is also a fact that telecom operators are investing billions of dollars in creating infrastructure. The Internet is at the core of private enterprise today; network operators, like the content/service providers, should be allowed to develop their commercial models without additional regulatory constraints,” Addeppali says.
There was a twist in the Net Neutrality debate in the US with Google and Verizon announcing a joint proposal and with AT&T jumping into the fray with its support of said proposal (or at least one key element of the proposal). Proponents of an open Internet accused Google of a sell-out and Google responded with an analysis of myths and facts related to the proposal. (By the way, I liked this reasonably objective teardown of the Google-Verizon proposal).

Whatever the outcome of the current round of debate on Net Neutrality proposals, I guess there are some key issues that one needs to consider here.

Is the Internet a public good or a private enterprise?
What might have started out in defence and academic circles, is now the primary platform for knowledge, collaboration, commerce, entertainment, and more. On one hand you have the largest encyclopedia in the world that is user-managed and runs on donations, and on the other you also have the most valuable brand in the world, both of which owe their existence to the Internet. The late Dewang Mehta of Nasscom once famously included Internet bandwidth as a fundamental right of all (Indian) citizens and rightly so. But it is not just information or governance that the Internet provides us now and nor is the Internet "free". Content providers and commercial enterprises are free however, to charge their customers (or not) for access to their services as they deem fit. There is no regulation that determines how much a song download should cost or what the pricing of a hosting plan should be. You can sign up for a free, 'lite' version or upgrade to a pricey, 'premium' version. It's a competitive market out there, and a reasonably free market.

Is Internet Access a monopoly or a scarce resource?
In the early days of telecom (30 yrs back in developed markets, 5-15 yrs back in several emerging markets), customers had no choice, whether it was voice services or data connectivity. Regulators were introduced in most of these markets to break incumbent monopolies and encourage competition. Even until a few years ago, customers had very few choices for broadband connectivity, one or two service providers at most in any market. But that has changed. Wireless broadband access has emerged as a reasonable alternative to wireline, particularly in developing markets that have had very poor wireline in any case. Most markets have at least three such providers; extreme cases like India have 6-7 (and growing) wireless operators. Of course, these broadband networks (both wireline and wireless) have failed to keep pace with the exponential growth in Internet traffic demand but that does not reflect scarcity or monopoly behaviour. 

Regulators, I believe, should aim to make themselves redundant. That can only happen by encouraging competition, not just in terms of numbers of players, but also ensuring that each of the players has the requisite resources to be an effective competitor. Regulations should define the minimum acceptable performance levels, for customers and competitors; beyond that, effective competition should take care of creating sufficient customer choice.

Broadband Networks: No longer commodity utilities
For long, telecom networks have been called the pipes, equating them with other utilities like water pipelines and electric wires. Broadband networks, as critical to human existence now as the aforementioned utilities, have features that set them apart from the other pipes. For one, as mentioned earlier, they are no longer primarily provided by local or national government bodies and are not monopolies. In addition, the "content" that flows through them is also varied, competitive and unregulated (unlike water or electricity), The highway example is an interesting one, with several similar characteristics to the broadband network. As one of the industry experts in TKT's article says:

It's like any toll road in the country where every type of vehicle gets to use the expressway but the toll charges vary depending on the type of vehicle.

Everyone can use the roads to travel as they please, however, there are several rules that govern how traffic flows on the roads. There are certain roads (highways or expressways) that place limitations on who (or what type of vehicles) enter the road and charge them in a differential manner. Traffic on these roads is regulated in different ways; certain types of vehicles get priority to use fast lanes and some have to stick to the slower ones. On some roads, the authorities may mandate some capacity to be reserved for public transport by creating special bus or taxi lanes, even if it slows down the rest of the traffic. Finally, in specific circumstances, private roads can be built and the owners determine what they are used for and how. What do we gather from this:

A) Rules of what is allowed and what the charges are should be clear to the users (and to the regulators)

B) Differential treatment to users is permitted. In the light of (A), users can choose what they prefer. (By the way, roads are a near monopoly or maybe duopolies; telecom networks, we have established earlier, are more competitive than roads)

C) Certain capacity of the 'public' infrastructure can be reserved or set aside for critical usage or public interest. 

D) Customers can, in certain circumstances, negotiate and build private infrastructure and use it the way they want.

As a Broadband customer, I would be willing to pay a premium for a network that understood my priority applications and provided a superior performance for such core services, even at the expense of other stuff. For instance, I would surely like to access my enterprise applications (Intranet, Mail, etc.) much faster / better than say, a YouTube video. A doctor providing remote medical assistance would surely want her tele-medicine application to not be choked mid-way through the procedure. On the other hand, a movie junkie (perhaps the doctor, on vacation) would want nothing more than super-fast download of the latest iTunes movie (in HD). Should we let this be left to fate (or best effort, in Internet / telecom parlance)? I say, No. Internet service providers need to make their networks more capable, to discriminate intelligently and individually across different types of content / applications. In a world where our lives are going to revolve around the cloud, networks have to become more than dumb pipes. Intelligent networks will create more value to the customers as well as the content providers. 

Maybe most customers do not want such intelligence. Maybe most content providers do not care about it. But for the few that want the choice, let regulation not take it away and relegate them, in the name of neutrality, to an "average" experience.

I welcome your comments and feedback, particularly because the "Net Neutrality" debate is still not defined well enough in developing markets.

Posted via email from Global Gyan

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