“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain”
— Stephen Hawking
The world stands divided over Net Neutrality and there are substantial arguments presented in support of as well as against. In India, the debate is often compared to the US Federal Communications Commission ruling that equated the Internet to a public utility. There is absolutely no comparison between the two countries. Shouldn’t we at this stage be rather asking the question: “Is India properly connected to the Internet, and in places where it is, whether or not the quality of services is good enough?” Just compare the two countries! Probably Dr Hawking did not think of the developing world while speaking about the Internet.
This is not to say that discussions over Net Neutrality are not needed today, but we must remember that because of Net Neutrality and other hotly-debated issues, we have forgotten about the Quality of Service (QoS) for mobile Internet in India. There were 306 million mobile Internet users in India in December 2015, of which 219 million were urban. These numbers are increasing every day. Many nations, specially developed ones, have gone ahead in strengthening 4G services and even started planning the launch of 5G, whereas India is yet to have uniform 3G services across the country. Most people still depend on 2G and even that is absent in many places, so the thought of India and 5G services seems like a distance dream.
Another issue that has got a lot of attention in India is of “call drops”. Modern mobile-based telecommunications in India started as a mechanism of making calls and the problem of frequent call drops has drawn a sharp reaction. However, despite telecommunications having rapidly evolved into a data-driven service, there is not much hue and cry over Internet session drops. Session drops and frequent switching from 3G to 2G has now embedded itself as a mundane phenomenon in our lives. In a survey conducted by CUTS recently, it was found that though consumers keep QoS as a rationale for choosing their mobile Internet service provider, the satisfaction levels on QoS is fairly low.
For the regions of Rajasthan, West Bengal and Delhi-NCR, the satisfaction levels were 24, 45 and 52 per cent respectively. IIT Delhi also ran extensive QoS measurements in several rural and urban locations in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and found similar problems. Network availability in some locations was as low as 35 per cent, frequent switching between 2G and 3G led to stalls of tens of seconds and the achieved bandwidth was far from advertised values. This proves that the quality of Indian mobile Internet services is definitely below par. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India released a QoS regulation for wireless Internet services in 2012. It outlined the minimum benchmarks for technical parameters, such as speed, latency, availability, etc., for the operator to comply with.
The operators are mandated to follow these benchmarks and give monthly performance reports on these parameters to Trai, which are collated for a quarter and uploaded by Trai on its website. Similarly in 2014, Trai released another notification that mandated the operators to meet the minimum quoted download speed for more than 80 per cent of usage time for consumers. Despite these regulations, there has been no substantial improvement in QoS for mobile Internet in India. In fact, IIT Delhi’s measurements reveal during the same period the values reported by operators to Trai were significantly different from actual measured values. This suggests that there are lacunas in the existing framework and things must be improved.
Misleading advertisements on Internet speeds, incomplete information given to users and poor consumer awareness all work against consumer interests. Sadly, as there are no penalty provisions on the breach of benchmarks, the regulation doesn’t act as a deterrent to operators to enhance their QoS.Look at Singapore. Operators there are mandated to reveal complete information to consumers at the time of sales and the regulator holds regular surveys with consumers to understand QoS. This method effectively brings feedback from end-users and incorporates it in the regulatory framework.
Similar to the Indian context, though, Brazil recognises that consumer awareness may be low and they may not understand technical reports published by the operators. A ranking system has, therefore, been introduced for all of Brazil’s 27 states. The operators are ranked on the basis of QoS performance by the regulator and this ranking is published on the regulator’s website. The ranking system imbibes competition among operators and also empowers consumers in choosing their Internet service provider. Introducing such a mechanism in India may be one way to resolve quality issues by instilling competition.
The recent Supreme Court judgment on voiding Trai’s order for penalising operators over call drops indicates that strong resistance must be expected from the operators on enforcing QoS for mobile Internet too. However, when the world has moved on to over 40Mbps speeds with close to 100 per cent coverage in countries like Singapore and South Korea, India still struggles to provide seamless Internet to places where it is available. This underlines the need for reforms, in regulations, test methodologies and, most important, consumer awareness. To resolve this, a critical role has to be played not just by Trai but by civil society organisations and consumers as well.