There’s been a lot of talk in the western world for the past few years about net neutrality. A terminology that was first coined in a scholar essay by Tim Wu over a decade ago about proposing how regulations could keep the Internet free and open for everybody. In fact, I bet whether an average internet user in Uganda knows the gist of net neutrality. You would be hard pressed to get a feedback from our regulator UCC in regard to net neutrality, the simple reason is that we have no regulations since it’s an open market.

The 2014 state of broadband report puts Africa at 0.5% (3 million) fixed broadband subscriptions compared to 8% ( 172 million) mobile broadband subscriptions.  The US is at 22.9% (163 million) and 25% (577 million) for fixed and mobile broadband subscriptions respectively, so with such huge numbers it is no surprise that the west had to act quickly to protect the internet before the ISPs screw it up. This means as Africa we don’t need to sleep and wait until it gets to the worst situation, we have to act now.

There is a thing about net neutrality which I don’t think most people don’t understand. It has been 12 years in the making in the US, and I don’t think we need to wait for another decade for our lawmakers to wake up on this issue.

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So What is Net Neutrality anyway?

Net neutrality is this principle that has been around for a long time and it’s a pretty basic idea. Net neutrality is the notion that when you request data from somewhere else on the internet it all comes to you at the same time, and at the same speed. And, your internet provider isn’t messing with it in anyway, so the data on the internet is neutral. Yes, it’s that simple.

Take an example of FacebookZero, where ISPs (Internet Service Providers) prioritize that specific URL to be charged at UGX 0, (it basically by-passes the billing system) some ISPs strip out the ability to download images or watch Facebook videos with this service. Whether Facebook pays them for this, is another matter altogether. Recent promotions commonly known as WFT that give free Whatsapp, Facebook and twitter are just the beginning from Airtel and MTN.

So how the different countries will enforce the net neutrality rules is where the argument really is. And, how much we tell the ISPs what we can and can’t do on their networks is another big debate. So when we wrap all that up together that set of questions and the entire argument is what is known as net neutrality.

Recent developments on, Net Neutrality

At the beginning of this month, America’s communication regulator the FCC, voted to reclassify broadband internet as a Title II Telecommunication service. (Don’t worry am going to break that down for you). Okay, this is a very wonky legal reclassification, it’s the same set of rules that govern phone services. It provides a legal foundation for a set of rules that accomplish the goals of net neutrality. The rules are:

  1. ISPs can’t block services, which means company X can’t block you from using a high bandwidth video service, as long as the service is lawful.
  2. ISPs can’t degrade services, which means company X can’t throttle or slow down the speeds of your  downloads or torrents  (assuming they are legal in that particular country)
  3. ISPs can’t accept payments of prioritized services, which means the owners of the service, lets say an internet TV streaming service cannot pay company X to be faster than its competition.

The three rules above provide the fundamentals of net neutrality. It is basically any service, any device on the network’s  internet being made available freely without the ISP getting in the way and slowing things down or speeding things up based on their decisions or somebody else’s money.

“ISPs will not be happy with these rules”

ISPs will not be happy with these rules as they directly affect their revenues, but it seems like the general public would be pretty unanimous and agree on these rules. These principles are so enshrined on how we think of the internet, they make the internet fair.

Most people think the internet is fundamentally fair, as you can start a website, a blog, you can go to YouTube and watch a video there and back out and enjoy all online services while paying for a service, which is just access to the internet. You are not paying for a guide, or help, you don’t need the additional services that your provider will give you. Basically, you are paying for the pipe, but not or the stuff you do online.

But if you are an ISP this is a huge problem for you because you would love to make more money by charging the OTT (over the top) companies like Google for prioritizing YouTube by saying “yes we will slow you down if you don’t pay us”.  But in Uganda seems the ISPs are bending over as much as hosting Google’s cache servers (ability to store already requested content locally so that whoever else requests for the same data in within Uganda won’t need to connect back to the US servers for the same info). This is why you find some ISPs have faster YouTube video play back without buffering unlike others. Basically this is some sort of trickery preferential access.

So if you are an ISP, you would be leaving money on the table by saying we are going to treat all traffic fairly. But ultimately what matters is that we depend on the internet and as a developing economy it has become part of our lives that you shouldn’t let other people’s desire for money get in the way of that.

Treat the Internet as a Utility

Net neutrality in Uganda_utility

Imagine we paid for the internet as a water or electricity bill. The idea of the internet as a utility has its obvious problems and the detractors do point out that the utilities we already have aren’t always the best and the fear is once the government through UCC gets involved in regulating and controlling the internet, it means there won’t be innovation. But how valid is this argument?

I think there is a certain amount of truth to it. And, the truth is that in some markets there is not a lot of competition in this space, The best example I could use is those fixed line dial-up internet connections your service provider gives you when you sign up for a service, they are not great, some are pretty old and sometimes they are garbage, there is no innovation in that space. Then, there is this whole new wireless internet markets in Uganda where there is lots of competition with WiFi routers, dongles and cellphones in plenty from Huawei, Alcatel or ZTE through the carriers. So in a span on 20 years where people have had the same ADSL (fixed line internet) connection, cellphones have gotten very crazy, they are wildly better than they were in 2007 thanks to the iPhone.

That is the problem with the existing fixed line internet which is only dominated by UTL in Uganda. Which means there is no competition and they are not getting any better, so the company can decide to may be throttle it’s users (not that it’s doing it) and the customers would have no option of switch to another fixed line ISPs. So there my preference as a consumer would not be expressed. I need this to be known in order for the market to react and so that I get the product I want at a price that is affordable. That is how it’s supposed to work or how it works everywhere else. But the reality will be that I wouldn’t have any choices.

With Google Fiber under project Link, we expect to have FTTH (Fiber To The Home) in the future — think 2020 and beyond — if all goes well. This will come with blazing fast internet speeds right at your doorstep and no need to use your mobile data bundles. But at what cost? At that point in the future, you will find that having a FTTH connection will be a deciding factor for people before they make up their mind to live in a particular area. In fact, I can’t move into a neighborhood without the right wireless 3G or 4G-LTE signal from my ISP. I actually chose to live where I live because there was 4G -LTE from my provider, you don’t think of other utilities in your life that way. You can’t say; “am going to live this apartment because the water will be good, or there will be frequent load-shedding” that’s a crazy way to think about the other utilities since they are already a factor of your life. Internet services are a bit different, you can decide to pay for a faster service since you depend on it differently, but it should just be there since we are now accustomed to it.

These net neutrality rules will also have to apply to wireless for the first time. But even in wireless especially here in Uganda it is not as easy to switch especially when it comes to LTE. The massive competition in this space will not limit you, as you can switch from Africell to MTN or Vodafone LTE, but it’s some factors that make it hard especially when it comes to the incompatibility of their LTE networks unlike the more standardized 3G networks.

Where does the Government come in?

It is understandable for certain companies to viciously protect their monopolies that you don’t have so much of a choice as a consumer. So in my opinion, the government has to come in and assure these ISPs that the innovation isn’t happening on the network, just build the damn networks have them be fast and have them be utilities. The innovation and the competition is happening with all the stuff that connects to that network. With all these start-ups we see mushrooming, that’s where the real innovation is.

So do you finally understand what neutrality is, and what it means for the future of the internet in Uganda? Vote Below.

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