What's the 'right' debate on net neutrality?
Keshav R. Murugesh April 23, 2015803,723 mails in TRAI's inbox… it sure is a deluge of 'opinion' flooding the government's corridors. The recent debate on 'Net-neutrality' has many layers, but what has taken the nation by storm is the top-most layer on being given the RIGHT to access information without being punished by forces wanting to ride the principles of a 'market economy'. The mandate is clear from the 0.005 per cent of the population that uses smartphones in India*.
I am all for freedom to choose where and how I want to consume content. Especially when the age of Internet freedom has created so many different products and solutions that are lifelines for most of us today. Be it the videos on YouTube or the chats on What'sApp. It's difficult to even fathom a telecom company getting a hold of trying to 'unintentionally' or 'unknowingly' leading us to consume content as strategized by its marketing and strategy team.
Not just me, but an entire industry, the business process management or BPO industry, looks at any disruption to this freedom with a really close lens. After all, we are poised to grow to $50 billion in size from the $26 billion we are today, riding on the promise of innovation, domain specialisation and the ability to build the right technology platforms for our global clientele. All of this on the back of access to the right data and the right channels in any part of the world… and the last thing we would want as an industry is to be led by any telecom company as per its 'innovative constructs'.
However, peeling through the layers of this debate, I do find market economics levelling out the playing field in many ways even today. Let us look at some extremely basic examples in real life. For instance, we still have a VIP darshan in holy places, despite this one place presumably being 'equal to all'. We have come to terms with cable operators who provide free access to certain channels on their networks while either not having or asking for a fee on others. We still find the 'kirana' or 'mom and pop' shops being in happy co-existence with the biggie superstores.
The thought I am putting forth is that 'preferential constructs' or 'discrimination in the form of differentiation' do exist in various areas even today.
Looking closely at the government's Digital India vision, we know that increased investments would be required in infrastructure. Broadband penetration in the country has been at an abysmal low with media reports claiming that out of the 175 million broadband connections set as a target for 2017, 85.74 million have been achieved till December 2014. The wireless broadband speed in India is 1.7 megabytes per second or MBPS as against 10.5 MBPS in the US and 9.9 MBPS in the UK.
The moot point is that we as a nation need a very strong prop up in terms of our digital infrastructure and connect, which will require large telecom players to come forth and put their money in. Why would they do it if they were not allowed to survive and grow profitably as a business?
I am not being a capitalist, and would not recommend that we look at it as a nation in a capitalist sense. I am merely suggesting that without capitalism, the next phase of transformational growth cannot happen. But we are protected as a democracy, as a country that understands the divide between the rich and the poor. We are a country whose government can set right arm-twisting tactics with firm policies and governance. I believe that it is the fear of the unknown or rather limited understanding of this debate that is creating an unprecedented uproar.
All the Net activism has clearly showcased that no policy can be thrust upon the citizens of this country. But the activism alludes to restrictive policies that telecom companies can create, completely hampering the rate of innovation in the country and thereby threatening the interests of start-ups, which I find hard to digest at this point.
I belong to an industry that co-exists with the government in many ways. For instance, the government looks to the BPM industry to set up offices in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, thereby generating large-scale employment and pulling up the standard of living in such places. Large investments are made by corporate houses, while continuing to seek government incentives in various forms to do so. Capitalism co-exists with socialism.
I am still wondering what the debate is. Is it about 'neutrality' in gaining access to information? In being unrestricted about learning or gaining information? Then I am all for it. Any restriction of any kind has always hindered overall growth and history stands testimony to it.
But I am quite certain that that is not the debate here. It is about 'how to do business' wherein private players are involved from a business stand-point and the government is involved through its agencies to ensure that citizens are not being affected or discriminated against in any manner, and their fundamental rights are not violated in any sense by large business houses. It is about creating policies and frameworks that enthuse players to invest in telecom infrastructure while allowing the citizens the freedom to view what they want from wherever they want.
It is that fine line that is being discussed.
(The author is Group CEO, WNS, and Chairman, Nasscom BPM Council)
*A recent CISCO report states that there are 140 million smartphone users in the country.