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Digital India will fail if Indian ISPs are not held to standards

Digital India will fail if Indian ISPs are not held to standards

Digital India will fail if Indian ISPs are not held to standards

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After a brief period of calm in which it seemed like common sense and logic had prevailed over corporate greed, net neutrality and zero-rating issues were reopened thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley to promote the Digital India initiative. Facebook’s controversial Internet.org program is back with a new name but no less ambitious goal, and the second round of the net neutrality battle is well underway.

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The whole concept of Internet.org (or Free Basics as it is now called) is that Facebook will partner with ISPs in India and other emerging markets and then provide certain websites and online services to users , free of data usage charges. . Any developer can apply to be included in Free Basics, although ISPs can refuse them. These chosen few will be scaled down to be optimized for low-bandwidth, low-cost devices, but are intended to be fully functional.

The problem is that users – especially new Internet users – will get used to having a free service layer and a paid service layer, and many will obviously prefer to stick with the former. Even long-time users will be tempted to change usage habits due to the obvious price difference. It divides the internet and prevents people from discovering its full potential. It also gives companies that participate in Facebook’s program significant leverage over those that don’t. Net neutrality, or the idea that carriers shouldn’t interfere with the content they carry or how users can access it, gets lost along the way.

Once users accept and even expect a tiered Internet, the balance of power shifts dramatically. Internet service providers (including mobile operators) have every reason to encourage the concept of preferential access – some are already trying to entice users with free or reduced rates for specific and common services, while that others have tried to promote their own apps at full price. of the free market.

Now imagine giving them the power to charge subscribers more money for arbitrary things, and at the same time extract payments from web services to make sure users can even access them. Airtel tried to roll out such a program called Airtel Zero earlier this year and it would have succeeded had it not been caught up in the net neutrality debate that swept India at the time. Airtel later warned that if policies such as zero rate were not allowed, data prices would have to rise to cover costs. However, much like Internet.org, it’s likely to be back with some cosmetic changes and a new PR campaign.

Facebook has spent the past few months supporting Internet.org with obviously selective and emotional messages about how it can help millions of low-income and rural Indians get online for the first time and empower themselves. Building on the wave of positive press generated by Digital India, the company is signaling its determination to keep trying to overthrow the free and open internet.

Digital India is a multi-faceted initiative and we hope to see the participation of the world’s largest companies over the next few years. However, the government must also pay attention to the infrastructure and politics in the country in the form of voice and internet connectivity for end users, otherwise there will be no one to participate in the new digital economy. What we need is a new comprehensive national broadband policy that guarantees speeds, data transfer quotas, quality of service, availability, competition and, of course, neutrality of the network.

And it all plays right into the hands of our ISPs, arguably some of the worst in the world, but always on the lookout for resourceful users. Our ISPs are already hostile to customers. They charge way more than they should for pathetically slow and unreliable connections. We have the worst speeds in the entire Asia-Pacific region, according to Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report, averaging about a tenth of that in South Korea and half that of the entire world.

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Data caps are tiny, forcing users to be careful with their usage and limiting the adoption of modern services. Those who exceed their quotas are either charged ridiculous sums or reverted to Stone Age speeds until they pay for refill packs or other such programs.

Other issues get less attention, such as absurdly low contention rates, further limiting downloads. Customer service is often a joke, with unexpected outages lasting for days. Billing is often a complete shot in the dark. Websites are arbitrarily blocked at the slightest political pressure.

Worse than all that, some of our sleaziest ISPs try to squeeze even more profit by overlaying their own advertisements on web content – grossly interfering with web traffic and forcing huge annoying popups on websites and in apps. , which are also potential security risks. There seems to be no stopping them, so things can easily get worse.

Without a rock-solid policy and legal ramifications in place, ISPs will inevitably launch their own zero-rating programs in an attempt to raise money from web services. Conversely, nothing prevents them from being “doubled”, nor from imposing sanctions on heavy applications such as video streaming and chat, which will stifle both users and Web companies. Anything that ISPs can potentially charge more, they will.

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The giants might pay, but startups and niche services might get kicked out. New users will come to the internet with blinkers on and miss everything we currently take for granted. “Fast lanes” have already been proposed, which would make it easier for customers to access services that can afford to pay ISPs for preferential treatment, leapfrogging their competitors.

ISPs and other companies cannot be allowed to hide behind the glowing Digital India brand. Internet access must be protected and encouraged to spread. Without it, no Silicon Valley enthusiasm will ever reach India.

Check out the latest from the Consumer Electronics Show on Gadgets 360, in our CES 2023 hub.

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