The guiding principle to the preservation of a free and open internet is “Net Neutrality”. It means that ISP’s may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online. It guarantees a level playing field for all websites and internet technologies. The question arises as to how we should apply the concept of “Net Neutrality” in the context of Pakistan. Net Neutrality has primarily garnered a lot of attention in the United States, and has been the subject of intense scrutiny and various lawsuits over the last 4 years or so. My focus is to make it relevant in the context of Pakistan and how can it affect us in the longer scheme of things.
In Pakistan, many would argue the concepts very mention would be nonsensical and idiotic. Our telecom and internet sector is predominantly dominated by PTCL; one of the largest providers of fixed line telephone, broadband and wireless internet services. Besides being in the business of providing the aforementioned services, PTCL is also involved in leasing bandwidth to all major ISP’s operating in Pakistan. Majority of the submarine cables landing in Pakistan, are owned by a consortium of telecom companies including PTCL which is a major stakeholder in it. Besides it, the only company providing bandwidth leasing services to ISP’s is Transworld Alliance ie TWA. This gives PTCL a whopping control over the whole telecom sector. It stifles competition and gives them absolute price setting power and ability to manipulate the market to their whim. Since the advent of mobile providers like Telenor, Warid and China Mobile, the market opened up to healthy competition bringing down the call rates that were quite exorbitant before the deregulation of the telecom sector in 2004. Before this, Mobilink was the sole provider of GSM services in Pakistan for almost 10 years since 1994/95. It virtually controlled the Pakistani market in the presence of providers like Paktel and Instaphone.
The critical aspect to understand is the unlimited control that PTCL is exhibiting in the realm of internet services in Pakistan. A key indicator is the growing use of VOIPs and preference of cellphone usage in Pakistan. Due to low calling rates, the use of fixed line telephony services has reduced drastically in comparison to the ease of access offered by cellphones. This has hurt PTCL revenues sharply in the last decade since it was sold to Etisalat in 2005. Due to exploding growth of smartphones and widespread Wi-Fi internet access availability in the urban areas, the use of VOIP services like Skype, Viber has grown tremendously. Due to the ease of convenience that it offers and the biggest thing is, it are free! As per net neutrality, PTCL should be offering a level playing field to all competitors and not prioritize their fixed line services which is in effect; detrimental to the consumer. Due to exponential growth in VOIP services, PTCL has blocked the ability to make calls over Skype to landline numbers abroad which is a gross violation of the principles of net neutrality. Degradation in services like Skype and Viber which people use to contact their loved ones abroad causes significant hurdles for the consumers. It forces them to use fixed line or wireless telephony services to contact them instead. Alternatives do exist, but the majority using Skype or Viber like applications do not possess the knowledge or are tech savvy enough to determine which other services to use instead.
Interestingly, another example of net neutrality could be a deal signed by PTCL with the Jang Group of Newspapers, who own the famous television channel Geo, and the English newspaper; The News. This would involve the Jang Group paying PTCL money to offer prioritized internet traffic to its news portals like Geo.tv and TheNews.com.pk during peak hour usage. For example in the evening when people come back home and log onto the web and access news websites. This could happen possibly that competing websites like ARY and Dunya news websites either would be very slow to access due to a deliberate slowdown in internet traffic by PTCL. This would force the consumers frustratingly to switch to websites like Geo which are readily, easily accessible due to the prioritized speeded up traffic being provided by the ISP. This ultimately would work to the benefit of PTCL, which would either hatch up a package offering speeded up internet access in form of a paid upgrade to the consumers, or offer tiered internet services depending on the level of usage of the customer. A customer or even a company in need of speedy internet access would hop onto this bandwagon and save themselves from the misery of slow internet access on websites that they want to access. This would mean more revenue and profits could be generated by PTCL and make it immune to competition. And hence it will not make significant investments in its infrastructure to provide better internet services to the customer. PTCL would know it well when they can rake in significant revenue by just hatching up prices and slowing down internet access deliberately. In a market totally dominated by them who would dare challenge them? Even the government due to the significant market share and fear of investor unrest would not take on the behemoth known as PTCL and would put its hand up.
The mention about video streaming and IP TV access in respect of net neutrality was purposely ignored. Till now the level of streaming and data consumption in Pakistan is not comparable to the West; due to a lack of high speed internet access. With the advent of 3G and 4G services; whose licenses are being auctioned shortly; Net Neutrality will garner significant importance and the netizens of Pakistan will realize what lies ahead of us as the use of data services would grow exponentially in the coming few years.
*Net Neutrality definition has been taken from the website www.savetheinternet.com citation 1st paragraph*