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Growing the Internet

Rural ISPs needed to expand Internet access in India

The Net neutrality debate currently raging in India has brought to light a broader underlying concern: the low—currently below 20%–Internet penetration in the country.

A major rationale used by network operators in justifying a non-neutral network is the need to expand Internet use in India, particularly in low-income areas. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose Internet.org initiative has been taken up by Reliance Communications, in a recent piece argued that free—albeit selective–access to the Internet will bring more people online, particularly those who are not yet able to afford it. Meanwhile, the telecom industry has implied that charging content providers for carriage will enable it to deploy the infrastructure needed to widen broadband coverage to unserved and underserved regions.

Triggered by the rise of zero-rated schemes and a draft consultation paper released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on differential pricing for over-the-top services and applications, the issue has prompted a number of Indian Internet firms to pull out of recently signed deals with carriers, following a massive public backlash in which more than 1 million petitioners voiced out support for Net neutrality.

But the contention also highlights a deeper challenge that neither Net neutrality alone—nor the lack thereof—can fully solve.  In December 2014, the Internet Society  at its 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit sought to flesh out persisting barriers to rural connectivity, and found that a diversified ISP sector, along with local loop unbundling, is integral to ensuring equitable and affordable Internet access in India. The annual summit, organised by ISOC and Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation, is part of our ongoing Wireless for Communities programme, which enables rural communities around India to build and operate their own wireless networks using low-cost technology and unlicensed spectrum.

Central to the recommendations made by participants at the forum is a policy framework and licensing regime that makes possible the establishment of rural ISPs as a legitimate business entity. Such village-level enterprises will not only facilitate the development of new models for universal access, but would also reduce users’ dependence on bigger players. This can be complemented by rules that mandate telecom firms to share their infrastructure, such as their points of presence, to new entrants, and a streamlined system for the acquisition of required government permits, which remain costly and time-consuming.

At the same time, district panchayats or self-help groups in India can invest in village level infrastructure, using funding from such sources as the Backward Region Grants Fund. This is already being done in towns like Sabarkantha in Gujarat, which has appointed an ISP to run its community network on a revenue-sharing agreement.

These and other success stories around the world show that measures to increase Internet connectivity should not be bound by traditional approaches. With the Internet’s fundamental principles—decentralised, open, and interoperable—in mind, stakeholders should cultivate an environment that is more accommodating to emerging and novel setups, particularly those which seek to address gaps that established models have found difficult to fulfill, and those that enable existing and future users—in cities, towns and remote villages–to become innovators, too.

You can download the 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit report here