Off late opponents of Net Neutrality (“NN”) are using a new line of reasoning to convince regulators and policy makers, especially in developing countries, that NN is detrimental to socio-economic welfare of their constituents.
This belief rests on the fact that over-the-top (“OTT”) players are allowed to provide tax-free and uncontrolled access to consumers of their services (internet telephony, messaging, content etc.), while riding on the networks of tax-paying and regulated telecom service providers (“TSPs”). Consequently, such OTT players are depriving the government of revenue which can be used to expand networks and bridge the digital divide. To elaborate, this standpoint propounds that OTT players are snatching revenue from incumbent TSPs, depriving them of any incentive to innovate, improve their networks and expand into remote, unconnected areas. NN Rules which do not allow TSPs to impose differential charges on OTT players or favour their own in-house OTT services, and forbid them from earning revenue from exclusive deals such as through zero rating, reduce such TSPs to dumb pipes, commodifying them. When TSPs lose the ability to differentiate themselves and their profit margins shrink, they may stop investing as much; expansion of the telecom network will slow down or stop. Revenue from license fees and universal service levies which are often imposed as a percentage of TSP revenues will decrease. Bridging the digital divide will become challenging as universal service funds dry up and private networks don’t have incentive to expand.
Further, there are issues of security and privacy surrounding unregulated OTT access and the fear of unregulated foreign OTT giants dominating the communications sector.
This reminds me (in a convoluted way) of the arguments that were used by wire lines service providers (many of which were state owned incumbents), to convince regulators to subsidise them and tax the then new kids on the block – the mobile service providers. It was argued that the former were serving the rural areas and providing cheap services while the latter were catering to only the elite clientele who could afford mobility. As it happens, many governments did accede to this demand. However, as we know, it is mobile services that proved to be more cost-effective and it is mobile services that grew exponentially and finally connected the unconnected- something that the protected wire lines never could achieve.
The history of telecom has and always will record how disruptive technologies continuously breed both new innovative challengers and new incumbents, and how consumers continue to benefit from these welcome revolutions. However, as new technologies also come with potentially harmful aspects (e.g. security and privacy concerns), the stakes are high and governments, regulators and policy-makers must proceed carefully.
It is important to protect national and consumer interests in terms of assuring secure communications, lawful interception and privacy of data, and to guard against the creation of new monopolies. But the reasons for regulating OTT players should be these, and not the misguided notion of protecting incumbents to expand networks or the preservation of existing sources of revenue.
The creation of a level playing field requires that the Government look simultaneously at easing the regulatory burdens on incumbents and bringing OTT players within the realms of regulation and taxation, without harming innovation or competition. The need of the hour is the progressive movement towards an evolved and lighter mode of regulation. This should be done gradually by easing the regulatory burden on TSPs while slowly bringing OTTs within the ambit of regulation without stifling innovation. A good example is Singapore’s class license
which is a deemed license for internet content.
New forms of regulation would also entail building in security by design and through technology itself, and focusing on consumer education and awareness to empower consumers. One example is simpler, more transparent methods of ensuring consumer consent to guard against misuse of personal data coupled with consumer education.
When considering real or hypothetical revenue losses from existing sources, it is important to factor in the the OTT/application-based eco-system’s (Uber, Airbnb, local Ola, Flipkart, OLX, Paytm etc.) overall contribution to a country’s GDP by way of new markets, employment opportunities and decreasing transaction costs. In fact, the most economically efficient (and least market distorting) method of funding universal service is through the budget, rather than sector specific taxation.Thus, the reduction of revenues from telecom levies if offset by overall increase in budgetary resources requires a rethinking of methods of funding Universal Service rather than measures aimed at protecting incumbents which would end up hampering growth of OTTs,
NN ensures that the internet continues to grow and flourish as a source of innovative, new services and provides a platform where consumers are free to choose and markets free to respond to this consumer choice.
The new-age telecom regulator has to evolve sophisticated regulatory models that place the onus of compliance on the regulated (e.g. industry Code of Practices), and deter noncompliance through swift and exemplary punishment. The new-age telecom regulator should ideally be a converged regulator that handles IT, telecom, broadcasting and content, and collaborates effectively with other regulators such as the competition regulator to ensure that every part of the new OTT eco-system remains competitive (see for example, competition cases against Google
) and a range of other regulators (health, financial services, data protection etc.), to ensure that the increasing volume of online transactions does not endanger individual safety, privacy or national security.
The answer certainly does not lie in dismantling NN thereby killing the ‘Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,’ because of misguided notions of protecting incumbents’ revenue or the incumbents themselves.
A similar approach is needed when considering regulation in other contemporary areas of ICTs such as internet telephony or the Internet of Things.