India’s Tryst with #NetNeutrality

If one were to think about inventions & innovations from the 20th Century that have made, and continue to make a radical impact on how more and more of us lead our lives today, the Internet and the World Wide Web come in high on the list, alongside, of course, sliced bread.

The internet has changed how we access and grow through certain parts of our life including education, banking, financial transactions, entertainment, communication, e-governance, e-commerce, healthcare, the list goes on…

However, given the recent developments (or whatever one might choose to call them) and the ongoing debate in the public domain, shared below are a few thoughts as India decides on #NetNeutrality soon.

1. “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell. Director of U.S. Patent Office, 1899

Barring aside the possibility that one might have the audacity to suggest that Monsieur Duell perhaps forgot to account for reusable rockets as humans take the leap towards becoming a multi-planetary species, applications of augmented reality as humans narrow the gap between the real world with the digital, rethinking automobiles and transportation as humans shift to electric and driverless modes of transportadvances in reconnecting surgically severed spinal cords to facilitate human head transplants, ok, and the World Wide Web itself among the radical and not so radical things being worked upon as of this day; one can very well say that Duell had his thoughts bang on the subject.

If one were to add in 6 more words ‘regarding all things Internet in India’ to Charles’ statement – One might as well believe that truly ‘Everything that can be invented has been invented, regarding all things Internet in India’. How else does one argue for a regulatory intervention which if implemented holds the seeds to ‘massacre’ (for lack of a more polished word) innovation and entrepreneurship with respect to any services or products which can be used & leveraged on a mobile platform.

Given India missed landlines and is in midst of a Smartphone Revolution, thanks to cheaper smartphones and a ballooning telecommunications industry , as this churn happens, it is not difficult to hazard a guess that the next internet users will be cropping up in the developing world, on low-end smartphones. One can pick up any sector for the next 10 years and it will be hard to argue that as mobile and smartphone technology enables more and more individuals in India, we are NOT going to see more ventures (Global and/ or Indian) working on the opportunity not just in terms of creating local solutions, but using global solutions and adapting them to local needs too.

Farmers watching their maize fields, India | Picture Credit : Sarangib, Pixabay

As the world shifts to mobile ; more and more services and products will be accessed by consumers on a mobile platform. Differential pricing does not only go against the interests of the consumer where one can bring in the scenario of being restricted to specific apps based on ‘package’ or ‘no package (Zero Rating)’ selected from the Telecom operator; but playing with the very foundation as to how the (mobile) internet platform is accessed ,where one application gets preference over another, and which doesn’t provide a level playing field for ventures which currently exist or the ones which will spring up tomorrow to solve local problems.

With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s initiatives like #MakeInIndia and #DigitalIndia gaining momentum by the day in India as well as in the international arena, one clearly needs to reflect whether actions which go against #NetNeutrality will enable, or cripple, these and other initiatives launched with the aim to strengthen innovation, entrepreneurship and value creation in the long run.

Close to a year ago, Fred Wilson shared a vivid scenario on his blog as to how VC Pitches might end up in an environment where #NetNeutrality doesn’t hold true.

Given all Investors, General Partners (GPs), including those with interests in the companies currently caught in the debate, hopefully still intend to keep creating wins for their Limited Partners (LPs) as they keep placing their bets on the Indian market – my simple note to them is to never place all eggs in one basket – After all, from where do the next potential unicorns, decacorns and dragons* come from if there is no level playing field?

We have questions raised again and again as to why India doesn’t have truly global ventures like Facebook or Google emanating from within**  – Not having #NetNeutrality might just be the first step to officially answering these questions decisively once and for all.

Unicorns : Companies valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors  |  Decacorns : Companies valued at over $10 billion by public or private market investors  |  Dragons : Companies that return an entire fund for investors, metric applicable to both LPs and GPs

** With Zomato, InMobiZoho among other ventures leading this transition, there are more role models for Indian entrepreneurs now.

2. The larger debate on Zero Rating : Airtel Zero,, Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone

There have been statements regarding #NetNeutrality from individuals including  Mahesh Murthy, Riddhi Mukherjee, Nikhil PahwaPrasanto Roy , Srini GopalanSachin BansalSean Blagsvedt, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Rajan Mathews and All India Bakchod (I loved the #AIBRoast btw, you guys are awesome!) 

For US #NetNeutrality debate earlier this year (continued from 2014), which was positioned differently with access to speed lanes coming into the equation; there have been statements by Barrack Obama, Tom WheelerBrad Burnham, Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Marc Andreessen and John Oliver among others.

Which brings us to:-

Three Principles of Net Neutrality | Picture Credit : Nikhil Pahwa, National e-Governance Division India
Three Principles of Net Neutrality | Picture Credit : Nikhil Pahwa, National e-Governance Division India

Clearly, the effect of differential pricing for applications on the mobile internet was much easier to see through ; but as I went into more depth regarding the debate around Zero Rating : Airtel Zero,, Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone; grey areas started emerging especially when one starts thinking around the mission of driving internet adoption as more people (/ users) get online and experience what it can do for them.

I analyzed the scenarios spending a bit of time and thought and hold myself as a simple observer, when sharing my findings below:

Airtel Zero :

  • Taking in consideration of target user offering to ventures (established and new), potential users overlap for ventures which take to Airtel Zero & those who don’t.
  • Potential users which go beyond those who are already aware of and on the internet negligible. Considering existing users , this gives unfair advantage to ventures who get onboard Airtel Zero.
  • Argument : Ventures on Airtel Zero don’t gain unfair advantage when considering the analogy drawn for a toll-free number. Well, this is data – users ‘might’ get routed into placing an order (e-commerce, recharges etc) or choosing services (music streaming, peer to peer communication, etc) on an app they would not preferentially use otherwise, as those services are offered to them free of cost.
  • Unfair advantage to those who onboard Airtel Zero platform & disservice to customers. :

  • A single look at the 38 ventures which have partnered for India and first questions which come up are : Why exactly these specific companies for Social, Search, Peer to Peer Communication, News, Travel etc needs? Why haven’t some obvious-now choices like Twitter, LinkedIn (Social), Google (Search), WhatsApp (Peer to Peer Communication) etc been included – What’s the criteria? Who decides?
  • Unfair advantage to those who onboard platform & disservice to customers especially those who are already aware of and actively using the internet, but then might choose to use from the 38 services listed in the plan because of zero cost associated with partner websites.

Facebook Zero :

  • It is a stripped down version of the Facebook experience where people can access all key standard features ; and only pay for data charges when they view photos or when they leave to browse other mobile sites. When they click to view a photo or browse another mobile site a notification page, appears to confirm that they will be charged if they want to leave
  • People will still be able to access Facebook from the standard mobile site or the mobile site for touch screen mobile devices,, under their operator’s standard data charges – This does throw up a challenge to Net Neutrality but one needs to remember that it’s a stripped down version of the site which is offered free and the whole app is not riding free on zero rating, and is at par with the rest of the internet.
  • I currently have limited knowledge of the current service, UI, UX and operations, if any, in India and this remains a grey area for me to make any further comments when thinking on the lines of #NetNeutrality, #DigitalIndia and getting more Indians online as they discover and experience what the internet can do for them.

Google Free Zone :

  • No data subscription is required, and the free zone service will work with most mobile phones.
  • No data limit when using free zone – All clicks are free within Google’s search pages as well as unlimited use of Gmail and Google Plus services. Clicks that lead outside of Google’s search results pages will receive a warning that fees will be incurred. Same applies to Gmail and Google Plus products. All clicks made within the Google results pages are of course, free.
  • Net Neutrality concerns have been raised but what again catches the eye is that this has led to more wireless subscriptions. Considering Google’s role as the internet’s gate keeper, which I believe Google has earned (personal bias alert), would it be the right thing to do if more individuals came in touch with the internet via Google and discovered the power of search among other basic features? One also needs to consider the scneario wherein first time users become aware of other services and products (which remain on the free internet) as they get more accustomed to asking questions with more ease and regularity.
  • I currently have limited knowledge of the current service (including the search results thrown up – are they all sponsored links/ regular search? What defines going outside of search? Has Google Plus really benefited from the free ride?) and operations, if any, in India and this remains a grey area for me to make any further comments when thinking on the lines of #NetNeutrality, #DigitalIndia and getting more Indians online as they discover and experience what the internet can do for them.

I also understand that most users are accustomed to incremental innovation (think getting into the back seat of the first self driving car and letting the car do its thing!) and it will take some time for users to mature and reap substantial benefits from the varied services on the internet as they figure things out. We took our own time to reach here and hopefully the next users won’t when one considers Sugata Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall experiment which led to the argument for building schools in the cloud.

As I near the end of my post, I would like to add that I have immense respect for all the ventures and the entrepreneurial spirit which went into making them who they are today. I also understand that there are chances I could have overlooked some points when drawing my observations; so yes, am always a shoutout away to discuss and learn more as we build our understanding on the subject and work towards a level playing field as we solve problems and create wins for individuals across the world.

If you happen to be in favor of #NetNeutrality, as all these aspects around the larger debate get sorted out – you can visit & share your concerns with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over mail (last date for receiving comments is 24th April, so yes, do this now – Takes 5 mins max)

Save the internet. Tell TRAI we need network neutrality. | Picture Credit :

More power to you as you actively play your role in how internet works for and in India, and as it achieves more for the nation, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the job creation yet to happen via the existing and future enterprises, and of course, the next beneficiaries among the 1.2 Billion Indians who are yet to experience what the internet can do for them.