How can Zero Rating and Net Neutrality co-exist?

Internet and digital services have evolved to a level where it is now counted as an increasingly tangible resource by organisations and enterprises. The Internet can take an organisation’s presence and brand to a wider audience, transcending geographies and increasing its service dissemination. However, as with any other resource, harvesting the potential power accorded by the Internet has to be scrutinised and moderated to ensure a level playing field for all players. This becomes all the more important when one considers the almost limitless influence that the Internet wields over consumer behaviour amongst the masses. This drive for fair allocation of internet resources is what has given rise to Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality can be theoretically described as a principle based around the belief that all data on the internet should be treated in the same manner by Internet service providers and governments without any discrimination or differential charging based on user base, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. In simpler words, it can be defined as the principle of keeping the internet an open and constraint-free platform for users and websites where all traffic would be and should be treated equally.

Even though the subject has been a cause for widespread debate and discussion in recent months, one cannot help but wonder if the concept of Net Neutrality has really been understood by the Indian internet users? This question would be answered by analysing the debate raging around yet another novel development – Zero Rating plans. The concept is being contested as an anathema to Net Neutrality in India, with several internet activists and media houses actively opposing its implementation in the country and calling for stringent measures to check its impact in case it does get implemented.

But is Zero Rating really, as it is made out to be, a devastating blow against Net Neutrality?

For those paltry few that are not yet aware of the concept of Zero Rating, it is a new model of internet access which reduces the data burden on the users by having the network, application, or service being accessed pick up the tab for the users’ data charges. Also called toll-free data or sponsored connectivity, this new development is meant to increase user convenience by decreasing the demand on users’ limited monthly data volume.

Why, then, the furore? Lack of proper information is one major factor that has been driving this issue.

Misguided by half-facts and the lack of proper understanding of the concept, certain sections of the society have come under the ill-found impression that Zero Rating could violate Net Neutrality. This notion has led to an opposition against implementing Zero Rating in the Indian scenario. What needs to be stressed here is the fact that Zero Rating is a billing model only and does in no way affect the way internet traffic is allocated by service providers. It does not block competing content in any manner, instead focusing on delivering a wider variety of services to price-sensitive users and encouraging them to use digital services. This point needs careful examination, especially when it comes to its implementation in the Indian context.

Consider a scenario highlighting the benefits that Zero Ratings could bring to the country: In India, the average revenue per user (ARPU) is approximately INR 125. With prices rising to nearly double that as well as for 1 GB of data, the next decade might see mobile internet become too costly to afford for a large part of the population, denting the Government’s effort to increase internet penetration and bring more citizens onto a digital platform. Zero Rating can offer an extremely tangible solution in this particular quandary. By shifting the cost of data traffic on the website or application being accessed, Zero Rating can actually promote the cause of Internet dissemination and drive higher internet adoption rates amongst all sections of society regardless of their financial clout. Moreover, it can increase the service delivery of not just commercial consumer-facing internet businesses, but also greatly augment the outreach of essential services such as banking, security, education, and health services etc regardless of the user’s capacity to afford the mobile data.

The twin issues of Zero Rating and Net Neutrality have also been subjected to extensive research and debate across the globe, most prominently in the United States and Europe. Independent regulatory bodies, United States Federal Communications Commission and European Union Commission, individually conducted in-depth analysis of Zero Rating and its impact on Net Neutrality. While all the findings were overwhelmingly in favour of Zero Rating and its likelihood of co-existing with Net Neutrality, results indicated that a proper implementation would be required in order to fully leverage the service without violating the tenets that form the core of internet equality. This led to wireless carriers being able to maintain current plans like zero-rating and sponsored data, which exempt certain apps and data usage from counting toward users' data charges in the given region.

To extract the maximum benefits from Zero Rating plans implemented by telecom operators in India, a similar guideline formulation should be undertaken by regulatory authorities, particularly Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI and Department of Telecom (DoT). While currently no regulations or guidelines exist that limit or prohibit the offering of Zero Rating Services, regulators have to define rules and guidelines for telecom operators in order to ensure that while commercial practices benefit Indian internet users, the end-users do not end up with significant reduction in their choices.

What is heartening, though, is to see a recent 100 page DoT panel report that examined the scope of Zero Rating Services recommending the concept unanimously. It has urged the regulators, TRAI and DoT, to adopt the Net Neutrality and Zero Rating Services policy as they have been globally defined. The latest seal of approval from the Indian regulators comes as a proof that the twin causes of Net Neutrality and Zero Rating Services can exist hand-in-hand to deliver only the best services to the Indian internet users.

By Sanjay Krishna Goyal, CEO and Founder, ACL Mobile

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