What Net Neutrality means for future of higher education?

You might have heard or read about Airtel Zero and Net Neutrality in the recent days. But how does it affect us as individuals in general and education professionals in particular? Let’s try to find some answers.

Firstly, What is Net Neutrality?  “Net neutrality” is the term used to describe the concept of keeping the Internet open to all lawful content, information, users, applications, and equipment.

Net neutrality makes web equal, ensuring whether people are watching music videos on YoouTube or reading Wikipedia articles, they are treated at par.

In simple terms, it’s an assurance that your internet service provider (ISP) will deliver you data without any bias. It makes the web equal, ensuring whether people are watching music videos on YoouTube or reading Wikipedia articles, they are treated at par.

It’s similar to the promise of educational institutions that once a student has gained admission to an educational institute and paid the relevant fees, he will have access to same educational resources as any other student without any prejudice or favoritism. Similarly your internet service provider (ISP) is supposed to deliver you data without any prejudice or favoritism once you pay the relevant charges. It makes the web equal for everyone, user or content / service provider. This sounds perfectly necessary, right? However telcos worldwide are trying to change the rules and Indian ISPs like Airtel and Reliance seem to be following them.

In absence of net neutrality, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could hypothetically increase their profit margins by splitting the Internet into two very distinct categories: the ultra fast and the intolerably slow. Those content providers, who will pay to internet service providers, will be accessed ultrafast by the network users; everyone else will get second class treatment. Although, all ISPs deny plans of doing so. Nevertheless, it isn’t too hard to imagine a scenario where the desire to please investors takes over sense of public responsibility.

Net Neutrality in Indian Context

There are no clear guidelines regarding net neutrality in India currently. However, Indian Telcos have offered free / discounted access to specific apps since last 2-3 years to drive up data usage. It is in this background that Airtel launched Airtel Zero, a marketing platform for apps on 5th April. It was also reported that some big companies, specifically Flipkart, were signing up to be a part of the platform.

Indian Internet activists who had witnessed their counterparts in US successfully ensure net neutrality by FCC started their own campaign and as of now seem to be succeeding with Flipkart pulling out of Airtel Zero and Government of India actively following the situation.

In absence of any regulations or guidelines, platforms like Airtel Zero could evolve into preferential treatment for signed up apps in form of higher speeds and lower speed/ more cost for others or even licensing of apps resulting in a bifurcated internet.

In absence of Net Neutrality, if you are doing online shopping over Airtel network, Airtel will give preferential treatment to Flipkart app, as they are partners under Airtel Zero. There are high chances that the product you have purchased from Flipkart is available at it’s competitor at comparatively lower rate. Still it’s possible that you will end up purchasing at higher rate from FlipKart.

Let’s understand this through an example. In today’s environment, it is impossible to imagine education without internet. And most of such content is free for the student. There exist several online learning providers like not for profit edX and for profit Udacity. If tomorrow Udacity signs up with Airtel Zero, you would not have to pay data charges for accessing learning material including video from Udacity. And it might also be streamed at a higher data speed.  And hence you might sign up for Udacity courses over edX. Simialry in Indian context a no-name dubious “dare to think beyond IIM” business school might actually signup with the telecom service provider and it’s content may get preferential treatment over real IIM, which may affect admission decision of prospective students.

Hence absence of Net Neutrality,destroying level playing field might create an environment that favors big money and disadvantages everyone else, specifically non-profit educational institutions.The central issue with “paid prioritization”—where one content provider pays for a ‘fast lane’—is that those with the greatest financial resources will be best able to speed their content to all who use that provider. This would hurt small startups and public or non-profit content providers (like education institutions) that can’t afford to buy a ‘fast lane’ for educational, research, or other digital collections.

As you know, educational content, due to media rich format, requires better internet bandwidth and higher amount of data consumption compared to ecommerce or other  form of internet usage. So it is necessary that educational content gets equal priority on internet. Absence of which may make online education unviable. Such scenario will force, the quality focused not-for-profit education institutions to join in paid prioritization or fast laneplatforms like Airtel Zero or internet.org. This increased will add to the problems of education institutions which are already facing financial crunch so it will be difficult for them to absorb this increase in cost. They will be forced to pass on this additional cost onto students in terms of fees hike, in country like India, where online education is the only hope for economically reaching out to masses; it is also possible that the cost of online education will grow.

In today’s environment, it is inevitable for the education institutions to use online content published by commercial publishers i.e. academic databases, online journals & magazines, research reports, case banks etc. or by not for profits like Wikipedia and edEx, MIT open courseware etc.  To ensure proper and speedy delivery of content, some publishers might sign up for priority delivery if offered & pass on the increased cost to their customers, the institutions who in turn might pass it on to their students. Additionally, over the period of time the institutions might prefer content providers with a faster delivery platform powered by telcos and not utilize other alternatives. So it also could mean, input cost for almost all the education institutions, online or offline will increase. This would also end up hike in fees.

Further, technological innovations are making education affordable. Absence of Net Neutrality will hamper EdTech startups focusing on innovative to make education affordable. Vishal Maheshwari, who headed leading online education institution and has been a mentor & investor in early stage EdTech ventures feels: “Creating preferential access to further social causes and service penetration is one thing , using it to create only commercial monopolies as could be the case or fear now is quite another. Preferential treatment, if given sensitively, may help in accelerating penetration and better QoS by ISP. However, absence of right set of regulations can lead to monopolies and cartels and emerge as threat to larger objectives of delivering education to the masses.”

In today’s time, when RoI of higher education is under debate, absence of net neutrality in a worst case scenario might even lead to make it unaffordable for more students, which means, closing bell for many more institutions.

So do your bit to make Indian Internet free, open and neutral. Sing the petition or send a mail to TRAI with your opinion on Net Neutrality by 24th April.

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