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Net neutral

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Communication evolves and becomes more important as technological developments lead to new or different methods of communication. There was a time when snail mail was depended on to get a message across and to which the quicker solution for shorter and urgent messages was introduced in the form of the telegram. Telephone usage has evolved from pay phones to land lines and now mobile phones. However, the standard method of making calls or sending text messages seems to be also losing their previous importance with the introduction of social networking.

Many people, especially the youth, rely more on messaging apps than they do on calls and text messages from the mobile itself. In fact, with the number of software like iMessage, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Whatsapp, Skype etc. that are available for free today, it is not surprising that people no longer use their mobiles for calling or texting features. Thus many people have a higher data usage than mobile usage.

Speaking to various people, The Nation learnt the data usage and thus cost for data was higher than mobile usage for many. While explaining that he uses SMS if he requires a quick reply but otherwise uses Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Viber and Skype, Chalinda Samaranayake said, he spends more on data usage and that of his total payment, “nearly 70 to 80 percent is for data charges.” He explained that he relies on, “WhatsApp or FB messenger for long discussions, including but not limited to group chats which are impossible over conventional SMS. Plus those services allow sharing of videos and images easily.”

Those who didn’t use messaging apps like Whatsapp or Viber commented that they spend more on mobile charges. This could mean that data usage of many is for messaging apps as opposed to web browsing.

According to Deputy General Manager, Data and Postpaid, Airtel, Gamika De Silva, data usage has been significantly high in the past two years. “There has been a 17 to 18 percent penetration so far and this number will grow over the years,” De Silva said.
While Whatsapp says, ‘there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends,’ and Viber claims to allow, ‘Free calls, text and picture sharing with anyone, anywhere!’ both apps, in fine print or not, mention that no cost and free in this context actually means no cost in addition to data charges. However, many still find it costs less to use such apps than make calls directly through a mobile.

However, there is also the question of the profit made by the service providers. When we pay less for text messages and calls, aren’t they making less money? Further, Sri Lanka has some of the lowest charges for data in the world, which means that compared to the rest of the world, Sri Lankans pay less for their data usage and for many, their data usage is inversely proportional to their mobile usage. However, Gamika De Silva says that he wouldn’t call it a loss to the service providers but adds that the industry needs to grow and both the country and the industry needs to be more innovative.

Similar views were expressed by Head of Software Development Unit, University of Colombo School of Computing Dr. Harsha Wijayawardhana who told The Nation that data is highly subsidized in Sri Lanka, and that, “this can’t continue forever.” According to Dr. Wijayawardhana, there are between 2.1 and 2.5 million Facebook users in Sri Lanka and, “this is a fairly good representation of internet users,” meaning that most people who access the internet also use Facebook. Dr. Wijayawardhana is also a member of the Internet Society, which is ‘a global cause-driven organization governed by a diverse Board of Trustees that is dedicated to ensuring that the Internet stays open, transparent and defined by you.’

The Internet Society Global Internet Report of 2014 holds that Sri Lanka’s internet penetration is 21.9 percent and is ranked at 123 out of 180. The mobile broadband penetration is at 7.8 percent. However, Sri Lanka is ranked 37 when it comes to affordability of mobile broadband and is at 1.15 percent. “Sri Lanka will have to rethink its data policy,” Dr. Wijayawardhana says, adding that the data cost will increase gradually.

He also explained that in the last few years, there has been heavy usage of services like Whatsapp and Viber and people seem to be very keen on using such apps. Thus the number of standard calls will decline. However, Dr. Wijayawardhana also explained that free wifi, which has already been introduced to Sri Lanka, would reduce an individual’s data charges. Thus subsidization of data can’t be continued for long.

With the increase of data usage, it is also important to be aware of the various aspects involved with data services. Earlier this week, the Internet Society of Delhi held discussions about net neutrality, which twelve of the sixteen individuals The Nation spoke to, were unaware of or had poor knowledge of. However, those who have read about net neutrality believed it was extremely important, and Mohammed Imadh said, “Net neutrality is important to the society. It is a basic human right to have freedom of speech.”

Net neutrality is giving equal access to all services whether for free or at a cost. Dr. Wijayawardhana explained that net neutrality ensures there is no discrimination when accessing the internet. Facebook’s internet.org, which is, ‘a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, nonprofits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access,’ and has been introduced to countries like India, Ghana and Colombia, has sparked debates and discussions about net neutrality. The basic concept behind internet.org is that partnering sites will be freely accessible but users will have to pay extra or have no access to other sites.

“Net neutrality is very crucial for entrepreneurs, small business owners, tech startups etc.” Mishal Chowdury said, explaining that a breach of net neutrality is not only having to pay extra for services but also having certain websites load faster than others and thus affecting the number of views of the sites that are slow to load. Thus those who partner with service providers will have an advantage over those who don’t and users will not have equal access to all websites and apps.

While many are in favor of net neutrality, Chalinda Samaranayake commented on the arguments against net neutrality. “It may also increase the base cost of connection /services due to increased demand on infrastructure. Alternatively if a person is using ‘more’ resulting in lowered speeds for other users, due to excessive traffic, ISP should take means to proportionally distribute bandwidth,” he said.

“Net neutrality might support a free, fair Internet and allow users to surf without fear of undue discrimination, bolstering one’s freedom of information,” Chalinda Samaranayake said, and this is a view supported by many. However, the fact that net neutrality is a topic of discussion could mean that soon enough the World Wide Web would not be equally accessible to all people.

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