Net neutrality: why there’s no space for fence-sitting on this one


Africa needs to tackle the issue of net neutrality head on sooner rather than later if its to achieve its developmental goals, provide equitable internet access to all, and ensure its regional ICT sectors stimulate, rather than stymy, competition. Also, given its reliance on mobile connectivity, it needs to consider the issue of mobile net neutrality, too, and not just that of fixed-line services, which tend to be the focus of international discussions on the topic.

A recent deal struck between video-streaming service Netflix and the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the US, Comcast, along with newly-passed EU regulations, have put the topic of net neutrality back in the spotlight.

But what is it, and why does it matter to the average internet user?

Advocates of so-called “full” net neutrality want regulators to force ISPs, mobile operators and any other entity that supplies data connectivity to consumers to treat all types of data — along with the data’s origination and termination points — equally.

In other words, they argue that data service providers shouldn’t be able to treat the sending of an email or document any differently from voice, audio, video or any other type of data. Nor should they be able to preference data originating or destined for one company or country over any other.

In a country like South Africa, the economics of supplying data services mean few existing data packages offer neutrality. Most offerings from ISPs give precedence to browsing and email during office hours while limiting the speed of video, peer-to-peer data and torrents.

There are good reasons for this. First, the cost of bandwidth (particularly local bandwidth) means service providers already operate at thin margins and have to compete using minor variations — often buried in fine print — between the packages they offer. Second, throttling makes meeting expected (and promised) levels of service for key functionality easier.

South African consumers or companies can get truly uncapped, unshaped internet, but at a substantially higher cost. This looks unlikely to change in the near future unless the cost of wholesale connectivity falls substantially or the impossible happens and demand for data falls rather than continuing its current trajectory of rampant growth.

It may well prove overly idealistic to argue that African ISPs or mobile operators treat all data equally at all times of day if we want to maintain the integrity of the internet and ensure business users, in particular, have reliable connectivity for essential services. But it’s not unreasonable to demand that they at least treat the same sorts of data equitably.

Net neutrality advocates worry that operators offering their own over-the-top services like streaming video — which many do, or plan to — may structure their networks to favour their own services over those of rivals. For example, were Naspers-owned Multichoice to launch streaming video services, it’s not inconceivable that MWeb (another Naspers property) could be forced by its parent company to give preference to its own streaming service while restricting competitors’ offerings. With proper legislation this wouldn’t be an option.

Some argue that in such an instance the free market would fix the problem. Don’t like the way MWeb or Afrihost or any other ISP controls your connection? Change operators. The suggestion is that rival services will spring up to offer net neutral services if there’s the requisite demand. But with ongoing consolidation in the telecommunications sector on the cards, it may one day be economically unfeasible to do so — stifling competition both in terms of connectivity offerings and the services offered on top of them.

Moreover, there’s the risk that having full access to the internet and all services offered using it will become the exclusive domain of the wealthy, with the rest of society having to content with a slower, restricted version of it. With a few notable exceptions — like China and North Korea — the web is a largely egalitarian beast. Creating deliberate divisions between levels of access would undermine that terribly.

There’s another reason to believe all data ought to be treated equally: simplicity. Requiring data providers to provide the same basic services reduces the room for myriad packages with subtle differences in their terms and conditions of service.

Thanks to the consumer protection act we’ve seen great improvements in sectors like financial services and mobile telephony when it comes to making terms and conditions transparent. The same should be expected of data providers. We certainly don’t want to create a situation where the non-technically inclined internet user — which in Africa could well mean the bulk of consumers — risks getting bamboozled with fine print.

As is often the case with technology, issues around access and quality of service tend to outpace the legislation designed to regulate them. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has said it plans to consider the issue of net neutrality, and this preemptive — rather than reactive — stance is to be lauded.

Net neutrality matters because, while we may not know what the connectivity game will look like in a five or ten years time, we need to set the rules now if we want everyone to be able to play later.

Image: neelaka (via Flickr)



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