On Monday Misa-Zimbabwe facilitated a dialogue on net-neutrality with representatives from the country’s Internet service providers (ISPs), mobile network operators (MNOs) and the national telecoms regulator, POTRAZ.
The topic under discussion was: Internet equality: reality or fiction, and the objective of the meeting was to explore and discuss policy provisions around Internet access and affordability, a thing that would be super useful especially in the context where the country’s cyber laws are currently under construction.
The breakfast meeting had an impressive program line up, including that an unnamed Ministry official would articulate the ‘Ministry position on net neutrality’. The Ministry representative never pitched, and there is currently no known official position on net neutrality in Zimbabwe. I suspect that they did not come because there is no position. Yet.
Net-neutrality as the phrase suggests, is about creating a neutral Internet, in the sense of treating all traffic equally without discriminatory pricing or prioritization of certain services over others. In simpler terms, its about treating the Internet like any other utility you pay for, such as electricity, that you use however you like without ZESA dictating what amount you get or whether you pay more because you have a fridge. They just provide electricity regardless of what electrical gadgets you have. In that vein, net neutrality advocates that your ISP should not be able to throttle your Internet connection based on what you choose to use your bandwidth for. Those in the anti-net neutrality trench favor differential pricing and preferential bandwidth distribution, citing free competition.
It was a rare opportunity having representatives of ISPs, MNOs and POTRAZ in the same space that having the Ministry position articulated would have been useful, especially in response to one of the key questions on the agenda of the meeting: What should Zimbabwe’s net neutrality policy look like? Because these guys were all in the same space, it would have been interesting to unpack governance issues around blocking, throttling and internet fast lanes.
Nevertheless, POTRAZ can take a less passive stance and examine some of the issues that necessitates discussion of this heavily debated issue. I will start by discussing only two:
There is potential for abuse of power by service providers
Earlier this year, we learned that Zimbabwean telcos pushed for the regulation and banning of WhatsApp and ultimately other over-the-top (OTT) services. Network operators have been and continue to lose money because OTT services are hitting at the traditional voice and SMS business models that have driven their biggest revenue streams for at least the past two decades. Basically, what this means is that if the ban had been granted, we would have been forced to pay higher rates for texting and calling, with no other options.
Need for transparency of services
There is definitely a need for more transparency among ISPs, MNOs and other service providers in the telecoms sector, regarding their network management practices. This would especially help consumers to make informed decisions when they pay for Internet based services.
After they saw the futility of lamenting the death of phone calls and smses, telcos are starting to embrace this industry disruption, and have adopted an if-you-cant-beat-them-join-them approach. They have been only too happy to charge high premiums on data services and are stumbling over each other peddling so-called ‘bundles’, which they maintain are in response to customer demand (even though we know that its more driven by competition among the service providers themselves) and needs, and sometimes do this at a cost to themselves.
However, many things are not clear. At the breakfast meeting, several of the MNO and ISP reps were dodgy on the question of ‘throttling’, opting to use politically correct language like ‘effectively managing the network’. Whatever it is that they do, they should not be allowed to slow down traffic or block of content or services on the web, that are legal.
Then you have options within some of these services, for instance, to purchase mobile data at $2 per GB, which hardly lasts beyond an hour of light surfing and makes you wonder if the provider really knows what they are talking about. In many countries, 1GB of data will not cost you less than $5, and a real 1GB phone data allowance would ideally allow you on average, to do things like watch say 20 You Tube videos and send thousands of emails and WhatsApp messages before depleting. Bundles in Zimbabwe don’t ever work like that and 1GB promos are often misleading to the majority of clueless consumers. It is necessary that service providers be compelled to clearly stipulate the accurate specifics of the packages they offer, including speeds, and how they inspect or ‘effectively manage’ traffic.
The net-neutrality issue needs to be properly dealt with, perhaps through a meaningful multi-stakeholder approach that is deliberate. Many countries are placing a priority in finding ways first of all, of ensuring that the public understands what is at stake and determining how they would like their Internet to be regulated, if at all. This is a necessary process that needs to happen soon.