Net impartiality: Telcos are misleading us by calling it an apples-oranges issue

One of the major arguments against net neutrality – the principle where telcos and internet service providers are supposed to enable access to all content on an equal footing without favouring one or the other - is that different types of data are obtained at different prices, and, therefore, they cannot all be sold at the same rates. How can apples and oranges be sold at the same rate, goes the argument, when they are acquired at different costs?

The issue has hit the headlines following plans by some telcos like Airtel to offer faster speeds at zero cost to users of some websites (like online shopping sites, who will pay on behalf of the user).  The critics say this will inevitable throttle smaller rivals who cannot afford to pay the telco for this privilege.

Let us examine the telcos' argument in detail, and also explore how much cost they incur in getting us that 1 GB of data that they charge us Rs 250 (or thereabouts) for.

First, of course, one must understand the key difference between 'heavy' type of data such as video and voice calls, and 'light' type of data, such as texts and messages: there isn't any.

As far as the network is concerned, data is just data - a series of 0’s and 1’s. A telecom network sees all data as a series of 0’s and 1’s - whether it is video, text or graphics. That is, in fact, the key advantage of the Internet - it doesn't care what the data is ultimately going to be assembled into - a picture, a text message or voice.

As a result, the cost of carrying 1 GB of text data and 1 GB of video data on the Internet is exactly the same. In that sense, neutrality is built into the very structure and essence of the Internet.

So, once it's agreed that 1 GB of video does not stress telecom networks more than 1 GB of text messages, there is absolutely no justification for telcos to discriminate on the basis of what these 0’s and 1’s will ultimately be put together into.

But, of course, there is the question of whether different types of data are obtained by these mobile operators at differing prices. In other words, do Airtel and Idea shell out more to 'obtain' 1 GB of Youtube videos versus, says 1 GB of torrent traffic?

This can be the only justification for saying that 'all bits are not created equal', and, therefore, cannot be treated as such.


Paradoxically, it is the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India – a body tasked with the protection of consumer interests - that is cheerleading the destruction of India's competitiveness as a nation in the tech-oriented global economy of the future.