Net Neutrality and the rural connect

The now infamous term “net neutrality” was coined in 2003 by Tim Wu of New York based Columbia Law School in 2003. The term, coined to define any action to control access to the Internet and data traffic, has been the center of the debate for almost two decades.

And given the overnight change that comes with access to the Internet, holding it up to sacred ideals would obviously come easy. Essentially, should the Information highway have toll plazas. But then the whole idea of a toll booth is to get people using the highway to pay for using it. Expecting the government to pay for all roads and highways is a bit much since taxpayer money has many other uses as well – things like security, resource management etc need to be paid for as well.

The term has a ring to it – It sounds good  as does it when you hear someone say that the Internet is sacred and should be free of our capitalist ways – and not let the world ruin something that has changed lives in every way. But the question is whether it is a viable ideal.

For every 10% penetration, the GDP growth of an emerging country goes up some 3-4%. Just basic access has enabled farmers better information on the weather and market prices for fertiliser and other inputs and even better prices for their produce. Be it any sphere, education, health, entertainment and even religion, the Internet has changed the way we do things as compared to less than a decade ago.

But to have a completely free and neutral Internet is unviable, utopian ideal that would leave little room for us to get the most out of it and the Internet itself would lack the space to evolve as everything around us does. A neutral Internet could potentially be more harmful than helpful.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the cost of connecting everybody. In a country like India where the geography is as diverse as the cultures, the need for capacity is paramount as there are just that many more people in the country. India has the second highest population in the world and the highest per square area by a huge margin. More than a billion people live in far flung areas across mountains, hills, deserts, flatlands and marshes – almost all kinds of geographical terrain. High capacity Broadband means they have to be connected by optical fibre and over-the-air connectivity as was the case for wireless voice is just not enough. The cost for this is huge.

The economic argument is simple as well. When someone gets access to the Internet for the first time, they do not need the fully loaded, full speed, everything-on-it Internet. As they use it more and more, their usage increases. Initial users would be happy with basic, slower internet. These slower packages would become cheaper as the Internet companies make more money from the high end users that could then be used to cross subsidise the economically poorer users. The basic low-cost internet option would entice more households to sign up, and that in turn would be a win for both internet providers and content makers.

India’s massive GDP growth rate over the past two decades is mainly attributed to the explosive growth of the mobile phone in the country. The telcos followed a similar model where richer, more affluent cities received services at a higher rate so as to pay for rolling out services in rural areas. The Internet, which has far more scope for socio-economic growth and improvement, should then also probably receive the same treatment.

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