Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Highway To Hell

Telecom operators control our access to the Internet, but have recently started to challenge the openness and the content-agnostic nature of the world wide web claiming it affects their bottom-line. Should we care? Here's my take on making sense of all the #NetNeutrality fuss using an analogy.

The State and Central governments in India have long been unable to sufficiently fund road and highway-building projects in the country that are key to connecting producers to consumers and disparate communities together. The solution they arrived at was to invite private entrepreneurs to build this infrastructure on a Public-Private-Partnership model so that the projects did not wane for want of public money. In return, the private investors were allowed to charge a toll for all traffic that passed through the roads they setup. Just so we are clear, the roads were still defined as public property. The builders were only allowed to milk their investment for a finite period, usually between 5 to 15 years.

The results are clearly visible around us. Some of the most modern highways we are proud of today were built using this model. Travel times were cut, fuel savings were achieved, value was delivered to both producers and consumers of goods and services who previously could not connect with as much ease.

Toll Plaza Ahead

When you pull over at a toll booth, you pay based on the size of your vehicle. Cars pay less than SUVs which in turn pay less than trucks and buses would. The toll is defined to tax heavier vehicles and ones that can carry more load more than the lighter ones. Sounds fair, right?

One fine day, an established road-preneur starts wondering how they could make more money out of their investments. They look at statistics about the kind and count of vehicles that pass through their toll-booths. "30% heavy trucks! I wonder what they carry?" A little more investigation reveals that most trucks are carrying raw materials like fruits, vegetables, minerals, sand from producers to consuming industries. These industries then ship their finished goods out, some of which again pass through the toll-booths.

The Revelation

"Multi-million dollar companies would have no market or raw materials without my roads!".

This is when a smart, canny road-preneur hits upon a novel toll scheme. Tolls are charged not based on the size or load of the vehicles, but on what's inside them. People can travel for free. Cars and buses only have to pay a nominal fee - way less than what they are used to paying. 70% of the traffic is now elated! Essential goods can also ship for free - milk, medicines, vegetables, grain. How benevolent! Everything else will have to pay extra to be shipped past the booth. Iron ore, sand, cement, steel, food products, dairy products. This is how the road-preneur gets a share of the gravy train the industries around the roads have generated.

The New Order

Industrialists start to get apprehensive. Their production costs are shooting up. Some distributors won't take their goods anymore. The road-preneur senses another opportunity. For a handsome price, a good producer can ship their goods past the toll-booth to distributors for free, forever!

Not all industrialists can afford the handsome price. Only the large ones can. Groceries have fewer selections on the shelves. Construction companies have to deal with cement and steel monopolies. Prices shoot up everywhere.

And then, the road-preneur decided to go too far. For an incredibly handsome price, trucks loaded with smuggled weed and cocaine would pass through free and hassle-free at that. Despite inspecting the contents of the truck, the toll-booth operators would turn a blind eye and not report this to the local authorities.

Up In Arms

Roads and highways are a public property, no matter who constructs them. The Internet is the same. A property for all of humanity.

Road-preneurs were given the land they built on, which was again public property. Telecom operators rent the public spectrum to build their infrastructure on. They lay cables under our lands.

For their hard work and enterprise, they will be rewarded with a means to extract a profit by tolling the traffic on their roads. This is as far as we can allow them to go. Charge by load. Not by content. Not by clout. Or by any other metric that makes the roads more accessible to one over the other. Telecom operators are also handsomely rewarded for connecting us to the Internet. Charge me by data. Any further, and you risk becoming a social evil.

Take Action today. Don't let TRAI be bullied by the vested interests of telecom operators. Save The Internet.