Groucho Marx once said military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. The same could be said for net neutrality!

A whole lot of column centimeters in mainstream and online space has been used up fulminating against a big fat social media company trying to get the internet to the next billion people on the planet — the digital have nots.

They have a name for this. It is called Free Basics. The problem is about the term itself. Critics dont particularly see it as ‘free’, or want it to be ‘basic’.They sense a deeper agenda.Perhaps even a profit motive. And a big brother approach to acting as a self appointed gatekeeper as to what sites will be available.

Is google or wikipedia going to be available? What about whatsapp? Will that co exist with hike ? What about other media and content sites? Will they get a free run? No pun intended!


Then there is the question of why should only one preferred telco be chosen to offer this freebie. Why not a smogasbord of telcos. After all there are twenty two such in India itself. Just one telco will not get you the next half a billion.


There are other fundamental issues.

  • Is the net really neutral?
  • Can it technically ever be?
  • Can anyone at anytime, anywhere get as much bandwidth, speed and access to any part of the web for as little cost as possible.

What about for absolutely Free ?

Let me rephrase that.

Can millions of people watch 4k high definition Games of Thrones at the same time or video conference with each other on their cellphones at the same time without significant degradation of service?

The answer is ‘NO’.


You will have to allow for differentiated pricing for speed and data. There cannot be uniform access and speed.

Look at it this way. The internet is like your favorite expressway (that is if you could have one!). Now imagine at peak hour traffic or where the road capacity is limited compared to demand. What happens? A traffic jam. Gridlock. Call it what you want. You are now doing 10 in a 70 mph zone (If you are lucky). Suddenly you cant get as much road as you want, in the face of some unrelenting evening traffic. Whether you are on the way back home from your office in Gurgaon to Delhi or Upper Worli to Borivali or Bombay to Pune.The same happens in Manhattan and the City of London during peak office hours (of course the latter has a congestion tax to disincentivise folks taking their cars in)

In short there are physical limits.


There are a few ways out. If you use a Expressway. You can pay for a monthly pass and use an electronic tag to get through the less congested tag only turnpike (if you can get to one!) Or, you can use the old and much longer Bombay-Pune road and unruly inside roads and be free of any obligation at all.But move a whole lot slower and in a haphazard manner.

The net is a bit like that.

  • Someone has to build the capacity.
  • Someone has pay for it (Unless it is the state e.g Connecticut which is planning to build a 1 GB/sec fibre network)

It is not limitless.

It is certainly not free.

Whilst economists will tell you that the marginal cost will be zero for the nth customer.

Someone has to pay for the capacity in the first place.

  • It could be content guys, or
  • customers, or
  • both

It cant be none.

Else the carriers would go bust.

(Unless the Internet company owns spectrum,lays its own fibre and is a internet company all by itself).

So clearly sponsored sites meaning — Free (thats why the word sponsored) have to be subsidised by the internet company, and the revenue slack have to be taken up by paid customers —for non sponsored site access e.g amazon, medium, cnn, yahoo, expedia, flipkart, etc.Of course the aim of the telco would be that someday a free basics user could very well sign up for a paid one.And that would help.

Whilst to get internet to the masses is a must. Innovative models have to be tried, tweaked and encouraged.

People carried.Governments be on board.

Probir Roy @bringbackboredom

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