To safeguard both prevailing and future interests in the impartiality of internet services, Nepal needs to establish Net Neutrality rules sooner rather than later.
--BY ASHIM NEUPANE
With the volume of internet users in the country growing every passing year, the discourse surrounding 'Net Neutrality' is gaining momentum in Nepal. Public pressure is mounting on Internet service providers (ISPs) to reassess their position on providing open internet to the users. With the absence of regulations, instances of telecom providers breaching the ethics of Net Neutrality are occurring repeatedly. ISPs are providing service specific data packages that bolster a particular website, application or network.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is a term coined by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University in 2003. According to this concept, internet service providers (ISPs) and the state should treat all their internet users uniformly by granting a commensurate supply of bandwidth. This means the ISPs and the State are not authorised to discriminate against users by charging different rates, supplying varying amounts of internet bandwidth, and supporting specific websites or applications. Under this concept, internet users get equal access to all websites and applications. According to Tanka Raj Aryal, treasurer at Internet Society Nepal (ISoN), the concept treats every internet user evenly. “It states that the internet is not a private but a public domain,” he says.
Breaching Net Neutrality
Due to the lack of proper regulation concerning Net Neutrality, ISPs don’t hesitate to introduce service specific data packages to Internet users. Ncell – one of the telecom giants of the country – had set up a free Twitter and Wikipedia scheme. As the project was successful, Ncell launched a ‘Free Facebook’ scheme in collaboration with Facebook, allowing its users to browse the social media site for free. The company had also tied up with iflix, a subscription-based Video on Demand (VOD) service primarily focused on the emerging and developing markets. The company had granted free iflix service to its consumers, impacting Netflix, a comparable service.
Meanwhile, the state-owned Nepal Telecom has introduced different offers like ‘Facebook Pack’ and 'YouTube Pack,' disregarding the spirit of Net Neutrality.
When service providers introduce such types of packages, it compels users to subscribe to them owing to the diminished costs. As a result, social media platforms and websites not linked with the service provider cannot penetrate the broader market, hampering their development.
There have been several debates the world over concerning the notion of free internet. The United States had adopted Net Neutrality in 2015, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a department of the US government that governs the telecommunication sector, repealed the principle. The issue is nevertheless a burning topic in the US, and various activist groups, among others, have been calling for an open Internet. Likewise, India is on the verge of implementing strict regulations after ISPs violated the principle of Net Neutrality. In one such instance, Airtel, one of the largest Internet service providers in India, launched ‘Airtel Zero’, collaborating with various websites, a practice comparable to that being currently followed by telecom providers in Nepal.
Likewise, the Regulation 2015/2120 adopted by the European Union in 2015 has a framework that ensures Net Neutrality policy in Union countries.
Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA), the telecommunication sector regulator, is preparing to introduce a policy on Net Neutrality in consultation with IT experts. For the purpose, NTA has formed a committee headed by Senior Director Ananda Raj Khanal to draft a report on Net Neutrality. According to Khanal, the committee is soon completing the draft. “We will immediately submit the report once it is finished,” he said, adding that there will be laws concerning Net Neutrality in the country very soon.
The competitive environment in the domestic telecommunications market has contributed to unhealthy competition among the telecos, with each seeking to eclipse the other with the influx of numerous social media packages. According to Aryal, unless there are laws in place, the companies will continue to infringe on the notion of Net Neutrality. There is a perpetual tug of war in Nepal between the two largest mobile data service providers, Ncell and NT, and owing to a want of regulation, these telecos are in the clear to undertake such practices.
Rom Kant Pandey, General Secretary, Internet Society Nepal Chapter, says the unhealthy competition between the two companies will have an adverse impact on other service providers in the country.
Impact on Consumers and Startups
Meanwhile, stakeholders say the consumers who are initially elated at the prospect of free browsing will suffer in the long run as websites and applications not linked with their service provider will become deathly slow and browsing them will be an inconvenience. According to Pandey, it will leave the consumers with minimal choices, and they will ultimately depend on merely one platform despite options in the market. “The ISPs have been making biased decisions because the internet users who don’t subscribe to data packages have to pay more to surf the internet,” he said.
Sustaining businesses will be an arduous task if ISPs infringe on the belief in Net Neutrality, says Pandey. “If the telecos and ISPs keep promoting a particular company to bolster their interest, the startup companies will suffer the most,” Pandey opines, adding the startups don’t have adequate capital to collaborate with the large telcos and ISPs.
This hurts the budding Nepali entrepreneurs seeking to make an impression. “The innovation of young and brilliant minds will vanish if there is no regulation in the country,” he says, contemplating what would transpire if a Nepali develops a social media site which could potentially challenge Facebook and Twitter.
“Will that social media site be able to reach the wider audience if ISPs keep supporting only giants like Facebook and Twitter?” he questions.
“If there is no Net Neutrality, then innovation will be lost!”
The absence of a legal framework to monitor Net Neutrality in Nepal, may not be an immediately pressing concern. But it is a worrying sign. The likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter maintain hegemony over the prevailing market and with no significant competition on the horizon, telcos and ISPs breaching Net Neutrality protocols on their account is a compromise most parties are satisfied to make. But only for now.
As the Nepali online sphere becomes broader, new competitors will join the fray, and there will be more competition and with time, an innovation that hypothetically challenges the monopoly. But with Net Neutrality policies not in place, that innovation will be akin to an ant being crushed without an iota of effort. To forestall that future from taking effect, policies related to Net Neutrality should be formulated not only to secure the interests of the users but also to ensure healthy market competition among the data service providers.