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Thursday, Feb 20th

Is net neutrality a "non-issue" in Africa?

Is net neutrality a "non-issue" in Africa?

Experts say net neutrality is not a big issue in Africa despite local telecom players introducing 'free' access to several web services this year.

Net neutrality is the principle that all data on networks should be treated equally by not discriminating or charging differently in terms of users, content, sites or applications.

This principle has particularly come under the spotlight in the US after a court earlier this year struck down regulations that support the principle of net neutrality, resulting in possibly varied consequences.

A non-net-neutral environment could, for instance, encourage internet providers to prioritise web traffic for certain online services in return for financial gain.

For example, carriers or internet service providers could offer free, or zero-rating, data usage to popular websites such as Facebook and Google. This in turn means that users could have to pay more to access competing web services, thus stifling future competition and placing control of the web in the hands of a few.

Concerns also exist about heavy bandwidth users such as video streaming site Netflix having to pay 'tolls' to ensure a quality service in a non-net-neutral world. Also, open internet activists are worried that internet providers could even 'block' access to negative content written about them online.

But as debate about these issues in the US rages on, African telecom providers have been unstoppable in introducing promotions that have placed question marks over issues of net neutrality among the continent's over 240 million online users (statistics sourced from Internet World Stats).

Last month, Facebook announced a partnership with Airtel Zambia to introduce free access to the Internet.org app, which provides services such as health, employment and local information. Millicom-owned Tigo Tanzania also announced free Facebook access for its subscribers earlier this year, while zero-rating Wikipedia access became a reality for Airtel Kenya late last year.

But experts question whether these developments are serious enough to dent open access to web services in Africa.

"This is only even remotely a risk if the cost of access remains high," says African broadband network expert Steve Song who is also the founder of Village Telco, a social enterprise that builds low-cost Wi-Fi mesh Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies to deliver affordable voice and internet in underserviced areas.

"We need to address the real net neutrality issues in African countries which revolve around open access to fibre and access to wireless spectrum. With more competition in backbone networks and in end-user networks, prices will come down and any appeal (that) zero-rating has will diminish.

"I also think that we bet too much on the future looking like more of what's happening now. The last five years have brought incredible changes to telecoms in Africa and more are on the way. Look at how WhatsApp and others have already begun to supplant Facebook usage in many markets. Zero-rating is far more likely to have a short term benefit for those who can't afford access now than a long-term negative on the competitive landscape," Song told ITWeb Africa.

Meanwhile, the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) has gone as far as to say that net neutrality is a "non-issue" in a country like South Africa.

ISPA has also made a strong recommendation to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to steer clear of regulatory intervention regarding net neutrality.

"This is a particular problem in the United States because cable providers there tend to dominate the internet access market as a whole and there is an effective monopoly (or at best a duopoly)," says Dominic Cull, ISPA's regulatory advisor in a statement.

"It's not a particularly helpful debate for us in South Africa as our market is at a different stage of development. We face a different set of issues in order to ensure fair competition here," noted Cull.

ISPA also says that "shaping bandwidth should be recognised as a normal, day-to-day part of network operations," and that the association has developed guidelines to help internet service providers better communicate this to their customers.

"At this stage, rules should be primarily directed at prohibiting network operators from unfairly prioritising their own network traffic over the traffic from other operators," says Cull in a statement.

"But if an ISP's customer wants to buy a service that is prioritised in some way, then he or she should be able to do so. The same is true for content providers.

"The principle we need to follow should be that when a consumer buys a premium service, it should not affect the service offered to other consumers," notes the ISPA representative

Other experts say net neutrality is a complicated issue in Africa.

David Meyer, a European-based journalist for popular global technology website Gigaom, has told ITWeb Africa that "it's a really tough call weighing up serious benefits, which can't be ignored, with long-term risks that also shouldn't be downplayed."

Meyer wrote an article last month highlighting the 'pros' and 'cons' of Facebook's free Internet.org app offer in Zambia.

Meyer highlighted how the pros include providing access to those who previously lacked it, giving carriers a way to show people what the internet does and then selling them up to paid data services and providing the included web services with "the growth Wall Street craves".

But cons that Meyer highlighted include that "if users don't pay up to exit the walled garden (and for many, why would they?) then it stymies any rival web service, by making it harder for people to find them, let alone use them."

"In other words, zero-rating entrenches powerful monopolies, hurts competition and potentially slows down innovation," Meyer wrote.

Other downsides that Meyer highlighted include that "if your web experience is mediated through a monolithic portal, that undermines privacy — everything you do and look at is funnelled through one profiling gate, with the results going to advertisers and potentially spies."

He also said that "there's an immense risk to free speech" in countries where "state censors must love the idea of everything passing through one portal".

Regardless of the debate surrounding net neutrality in Africa, free access to selected web services on the continent is here to stay.

European headquartered Vimpelcom — which has telecom operations in countries such as Algeria, Burundi, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic — in January last year announced that it planned to bring free Wikipedia access to its African and Asian markets.

Vimpelcom announced in a statement that Wikipedia Zero could as a result become "available to 330 million mobile users."

Zero-rating access could then be viewed as breaking down barriers to information access for the African continent, which despite its rapid growth is still the world's poorest continent.

But as Africa's economies rise, the habits that its inhabitants adopt today in terms of accessing the internet could shape how net neutrality problems manifest in years to come.

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