India Must Repeal Net Neutrality If It Wants Universal Access

Somnath P. Das, A telecom and business enthusiast who likes to wield a pen from time to time

Net Neutrality in India is a burden and not a boon

Just under half of India – 500 million users – is expected to be online by June 2018. That overwhelmingly positive stat is skewed: rural India accounts for only 20% of those users and its internet penetration has grown only 2% since December 2016. The digital rural-urban divide is stark.

While urban Indians enjoy the benefits of instant banking, entertainment, wearable health devices and social sharing, their counterparts in villages are deprived of access to quality education, infrastructure and employment. In arguing for net neutrality, India is doing more harm than good to the idea of universal access.

Consider this: the government has ambitious plans to improve rural net access, including laying down one million kilometres of fibre optic cable as part of its BharatNet programme. It has also set aside a significant sum to lay out a roadmap for the nationwide deployment of 5G as early as 2020, aiming to deliver 10 Gbps in urban areas and 1 Gbps in rural regions.

The telecom industry, however, would find it difficult to adequately support this need. India’s telecom sector is burdened with a massive debt of INR 4.5 lakh crores, which prohibits it from funding new infrastructure and technologies required to provide better internet connectivity.

If net neutrality in India were to be abolished, the jump in telecom revenues would allow for greater investments in training and materials that ensure new opportunities in rural areas. For instance, IoT in agriculture would allow a sensor network to analyse farm and crop data, develop a predictive model to help farmers increase yield, prevent crop disease and generate more money.

The inequality in healthcare distribution could also be solved. Distances, poor roads and the cost of travel mean that reaching a hospital is difficult for many. Using telemedicine, doctors could offer home consultations. This would also free up overburdened health centres to deal with the seriously injured on time.

Access to high-speed internet could also generate employment opportunities. Besides being trained as support staff to maintain networks, rural BPOs could become a reality. This would then lessen the exodus to cities while also providing the economy an alternative to agriculture. Connecting these areas could potentially add INR 4.5 lakh crore to the nation’s GDP.

Rural areas are crucial to the government’s dream of building a digitally-inclusive nation. Those arguing for net neutrality in India seem to forget that the priority for our nation should be the expansion of networks to provide access and improved speeds to everyone. All you’d have to do is pay a few extra rupees on your Netflix bundle.

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