The network neutrality debate focuses primarily on supply side issues, such as whether content providers should be allowed to pay Internet service providers for “fast lanes”, and whether allowing them to do so would stifle innovation.

It seems fruitful to also look at network neutrality through a different lens. In this post I explore the following question:

What implications do network neutrality regulations have on equality of access to the Internet?

The Moral Dilemma

I’ve had a recurring debate with my friends who support network neutrality. Most of them agree with the following premises:

  • Society should strive to provide equal opportunities to all citizens.

  • Access to the Internet provides opportunities.

  • There are over a billion people in the world who cannot afford the costs of Internet data.1

  • Therefore, something should be done (immediately) to provide more affordable access to the Internet.

But when I try to take the argument further (as follows), the debate gets heated:

  • Some content providers (most notably: Facebook and the other members of the Free Basics program) are willing to pay Internet providers for the costs that consumers incur by accessing their content.2

  • Preventing these content providers from subsidizing Internet access (on network neutrality grounds3) prolongs inequalities in society.

Who Will Pay?

Although my net neutrality friends may agree that we should not prolong inequalities in society, they disagree that we should allow content providers to pay for data costs. According to them, the negative implications that might result outweigh the benefits of improved access.

But who else will pay?

One answer: the government. The government is (in most of the world4) a democratically elected body, accountable to the people. They could in theory implement an affordable Internet subsidy while maintaining network neutrality.

Personally, I’m skeptical that government-lead data subsidies will ever become widespread, particularly in countries where access inequalities are the most stark. Governments are slow to move, struggle to sustain projects that span multiple election cycles, and are not without their own conflicts of interest (e.g., consider that governments sell spectrum rights for billions of dollars,5 and may even seek to maintain high data costs as a form of censorship6)

Clearly this is a complex issue. In lieu of a solution to the moral dilemma, I’d like pursue another line of argumentation with my net neutrality friends:

The Definitional Dilemma

Before the World Wide Web (and still to this day!), phone calls were a very common way for people to access information. In the same way that billing works on the Internet, the consumer of voice information (the caller) needs to pay the phone provider for the costs of transporting their phone calls.

Some voice content providers (customer service centers, crime reporting centers, suicide help lines, etc.) decided that they would like to allow consumers of their services to call in for free. Instead of having the consumer pay, the content providers pay the phone provider for the costs of maintaining their toll-free phone line.

The parallels to the Internet are striking. Many of the arguments against Internet content providers also seem to apply to voice content providers. (What if a small innovative startup cannot afford to pay for a toll-free phone line? etc.).

Yet, toll-free phone lines aren’t bothersome to my net neutrality friends. I think it would be valuable for us to understand why!

I suspect that the content being served (and the companies that are doing the serving) is the real source of discomfort for people who oppose Free Basics. The same people don’t have much of an issue with toll-free phone lines because toll-free phone lines are commonly used by governments, non-profits and companies with ostensibly charitable intentions.

Yet there are plenty of governments, non-profits, and companies with charitable intentions who are eager to pay to deliver Internet content to consumers who can’t afford it. Which brings us to an actionable takeaway from this whole discussion:

Toll-Free Data via Voice Calls

Remember the good old days of dial-up modems? Dial-up modems transferred Internet data over voice lines, by encoding data as audio signals.

There’s no reason we can’t do the same over cellular to deliver data to a mobile phone. We just need software (a “modem”) running on the phone to decode the audio signals. In fact, this idea has already been proposed before, in a slightly different context.7

Now, if a well meaning company wants to provide data to consumers free of charge, they could pay for a toll-free phone line (or a return-your-missed-call phone line8) for consumers to call, and run a server that transfers data over that voice line whenever it receives a call. An application running on the phone could periodically make calls (without the user needing to intervene) to the toll-free phone number to retrieve small amounts of data.

What’s neat about this scheme is that we can implement it right now, without needing to change business models or wait on regulatory decisions. And it’s not fundamentally any different than toll-free phone lines, or even a regular return-your-missed-call phone system.9

Anyone have spare cycles to build the modem and server infrastructure? I’ve already got some ideas for great applications we could build on top of toll-free data.

Thanks to Bill Thies, Aurojit Panda, and Sachin Gaur for helping me shape these thoughts.

  1. State of Connectivity Report 

  2. In fact there are two startups, Jana and Movivo, who are in the business of making it easy for content providers to reimburse consumers for the costs of their data usage, by sending mobile top-ups to the consumer after they have consumed the data. In India, Airtel rolled out a business model that allowed content providers to pay for data, but this has come under substantial criticism from network neutrality advocates. 

  3. As in the ban of Free Basics within India

  4. Historical data on the fraction of the world population living in democratic countries. 

  5. India ends spectrum auction for 9.5 billion dollars 

  6. As in Jordan or Eritrea. 

  7. Hermes: Data Transmission over Unknown Voice Channels

  8. With the (sole?) exception of the USA, phone calls are billed only to the caller, not the receiver. By giving a missed call (for free), the client can signal to the server to call them back, such that the server bears the cost of the phone call rather than the client. 

  9. Which does not require a toll-free number, you can run it over a normal phone number.