Even without adding #NetNeutrality to the mix, the relationship between the average consumer and any telecom services provider in India is a tetchy one at best. Irrespective of whether you opt for prepaid or post-paid services, you seem to be forever haggling over available services and the pricing thereof, and, later, about the quality of said services. What makes it worse is that most telecoms have been overzealous to cash in on a vastly viable opportunity without investing in consumer awareness. Thus, most consumers are left arguing with customer care executives who are themselves rarely well-informed about the products and services offered.
Into this already bubbling cauldron falls the fresh bone of contention which has been dubbed the #NetNeutrality debate. Before launching into it though, I must admit to not being an expert in this domain, and am only offering my own understanding as a consumer of these services. In essence, the debate has everything to do with the Internet, as may be surmised, and how it is packaged as a product. When we sign up for data services offered by a telecom company, we agree to pay a certain fee for a certain amount of data downloaded and/or uploaded to the Internet via that company’s network. Now, many of these data service providers threw in such freebies as offering free access to certain websites along with certain data plans. So if you purchased data services for your phone from Company X, you might not be charged for the data consumed on Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp, for instance.
While this seems like a fairly innocuous marketing strategy – we are all suckers for freebies, this idea has its flipside, which is what the #NetNeutrality debate is centred around. Now, telecom services are suggesting they will charge more for data used towards certain services, specifically those using Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber), which allow users to call each other for “free”. It is important to note that “free” is not actually “free” –you may not be paying for the call itself, but you are paying for the data transferred over the Internet, whether on your mobile or other Internet connection.
The rationale offered by the service providers is that, with consumers making calls through these applications, they are losing out on call revenues. This cleverly sidesteps the fact that consumers may be paying less for voice, but they are using and paying more for data services. Given that voice and video services generally consume a fairly large amount of data, it can very well be argued that the gain in data revenues will more than compensate for loss in voice revenues. But the argument is about far more than economics. As the adage goes, it is not about the price, it is about the principle.
And the principle is that those offering data services at cost should not be concerned with how that data is utilized, for the simple reason that it infringes on the personal choice of the consumer. This aspect is highlighted by the perversion of the freebie idea; telecom companies can support one product over a competing product for, say, online entertainment, and force their consumers to use the free product rather than pay extra for the product of their choice. This has the potential to create a cartel of services which can then monopolize consumer “decisions”, and, so to speak, break up the internet.
Underlying this debate are the varying perceptions about the Internet – for the consumer it is a medium, like television or radio, through which to access much more than just information or entertainment. But for the service provider it is a product that can be packaged many ways. Already, Internet packages are offered based on quantity of data (300 MB, 1 GB, etc.), type of data network (2G, 3G, etc.), and even time of access (night-time specials, etc.). As already mentioned, avid users of Facebook, etc. can even purchase data packs tailored to give them free access. Such packs also violate net neutrality, and perhaps consumers should have wondered about the catch before queuing up for the freebies, but then the Internet has always conjured up visions of Utopia.
So what happens now? Are consumers supposed to just bend over and let telecom service providers stomp over them simply because they forgot that there are no free lunches? Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a consultation happening in India, hosted by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as a lead-up to which a public discussion is raging on – where else? – the Internet. For the average consumer, the issue may appear to be too overwhelming, but, unfortunately, it is the price for lunches already eaten without regard to cost. Hopefully, this will be a one-time payment that settles not just the debt but also the debate for the foreseeable future.
If you are still wondering what on earth is happening, here’s the low-down. The Internet has become the proverbial goose that’s laid far too many golden eggs and now those seeing themselves as its owners are salivating at the thought of cutting it up. You can raise your voice and prevent this from happening, thus preserving #NetNeutrality. The villains in this story include some very familiar names, like Airtel and Vodafone and Reliance. But unlike Bollywood movies, no one hero or heroine can step up and take on them all. On the Internet, we are all heroes and heroines; equally, we can all become the villains or the sidekicks. The choice is ours, to write a story that sounds something like that of Appu and the bus operators.