Have you been seeing all the talk about net neutrality all over the internet and wondering what it is all about? Yes? Then you have come to the right place.
I would strongly suggest you read a previous article we published on the issue first. Click here.
Net neutrality has been topical because the FCC (the American equivalent of POTRAZ) was planning on repealing the net neutrality rules in the country. They succeeded in repealing the rules protecting net neutrality yesterday.
What is net neutrality?
It is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. This means internet service providers (ISPs) like ZOL and governments not discriminating or charging differentially by any criteria, be it content or user. If some resources are discounted it is not fair on competing resources and this could lead to censorship by pricing or traffic shaping.
The internet is massive and owner-less and yet billions go into infrastructure to ensure we all can gain access. So when we talk about net neutrality we are not talking at the backbone level. We are talking at the end user point. The relationship between the ISP and the end users and not necessarily business to business.
We should acknowledge that the ideal of net neutrality, that all traffic be treated equally is at best extremely difficult to achieve. There are deals happening in the background every time but which do no necessarily mean the internet is broken because of it. That’s a different conversation though.
Let’s look at Facebook Zero for example. Facebook made deals with a number of mobile phone-based Internet providers around the world, whereby the providers waive data (bandwidth) charges for accessing Facebook. As an end user it means free access to Facebook, the internet provider is paid by Facebook and Facebook gets users. It seems like a win-win-win doesn’t it.
Here in Zimbabwe we have the social media bundles, for Facebook, WhatsApp and more. For users the bundles mean cheaper access to those sites because that data bought is set aside for just those sites and cannot be used to access any other site.
In both cases the deals go against the principle of net neutrality. Facebook Zero is an example of what’s called zero rating. The effect it has is that competing services are at a disadvantage. The same goes for the social media bundles, competition is killed.
You have heard constantly that Telegram is better than WhatsApp by the instant messaging application’s loyal fans. We all know that it doesn’t matter how good it is, there is no bundle for it so we are not going to use it. If we all had unlimited internet all the time then maybe we would give it a try but even in that case, we humans are not known for embracing change.
Who’s going to have to give Telegram tutorials to the elderly and the not-so-tech-savvy? We have settled on WhatsApp and any competing service is already at a massive disadvantage, they cost more.
In the US we had a case where Verizon, an ISP, throttled access to Apple’s Facetime in an effort to promote their own competing service. That’s an ISP not treating all internet traffic equally. An example would be if Econet developed their own messaging app and throttled WhatsApp in an effort to make us move to their seemingly better service.
If that happens will we not descend to a state where only the big companies would be able to pay for zero rated content?
In all cases, it is the small guy who suffers. The up and coming video on demand service which cannot pay to have its content zero rated like Netflix can is dead in the water. We will only be left with the giants and with reduced competition innovation will die.
Does the US ruling affect us?
The ISPs in the US can now block, throttle, and prioritize content if they wish to. They just have to publicly state that they’re going to do it.
This scenario is the kind that stifles innovation like we explained above. Wherever innovation dies in the world we all suffer. We all miss out on world changing solutions. More so when it’s in the US, where in the recent past a lot of innovations have been coming from.
Now imagine if it becomes harder for American companies to compete there how much harder it will become for a Zimbabwean one to compete. Take Telone’s upcoming video on demand service, no matter how good it gets it likely won’t be able to compete with the American giants if lack of neutrality leads to prioritization of content.
Will costs go up here if data costs go up in the US? That’s unlikely.