New Delhi: Network neutrality, or net neutrality, became the subject of a national debate in 2016, when Facebook (now Meta) pushed for its ‘Free Basics’ service in the country. Over the past month debates around net neutrality have surfaced again, with telecom operators urging the union government to consider taking a stance that would benefit them. Mint explains why net neutrality is back in the news, why telcos are against it, and what 5G has to do with it.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites. The core idea behind it is that services accessed through the internet should not differ in terms of the cost of accessing them. This principle has been in place to ensure a level playing field for all websites and a uniform cost of data for customers.

For instance, with net neutrality in place, no user will need to spend more data to access, say, Netflix. The reason is that if such preferential data usage charges are applied, users will move towards what is affordable, and telecom operators end up becoming gatekeepers of information and services on the internet.

Why are telcos against it?

In a recent submission to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm and Vodafone-Idea said that they should be allowed to set a higher cost for services such as WhatsApp and Netflix. Their rationale is that these apps are among the most widely accessed and put lopsided pressure on their infrastructure, increasing their operating costs.

What have these companies said?

A submission by Bharti Airtel dated 1 September read that “large traffic originators that account for a disproportionate amount of these investments must contribute a fair share” of the network cost incurred by telcos. This cost, Airtel said, should be covered “through a direct contribution to telecom service providers (TSPs)” to meet “the vision of Digital India”.

Jio’s submission on the same also suggested that “both communication and other OTT players contribute towards the cost of this infrastructure development, through direct compensation to TSPs”.

What has the government said so far?

In 2016 the government ruled in favour of net neutrality with Trai’s Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016. The rule prevents discriminatory tariff for data services between a telco and an OTT service and therefore prevents them from striking any such deals. Now, despite telecom operators seeking a revision to these rules, reports have claimed that the government’s stance on net neutrality is unlikely to change.

What does 5G have to do with all this?

According to Airtel’s submission, “In order to adopt, integrate and sustain new technologies, massive investments are required in the network infrastructure on a continuous basis. The ongoing 5G rollout requires intense fiberization and densification of antennas, the need for which is only going to increase with the future deployments in 6G. These developments will intensify pressure and will have a significant impact on the viability of mobile network operators as well as of other actors in the value chain.”

In other words, the telcos claim that 5G networks are expensive to deploy and maintain, and heavy traffic to specific applications increases their costs. They believe OTT services and applications should compensate them for this, which in turn would increase data costs for users.