Why net neutrality in South Africa is not a simple play
Internet providers in South Africa frequently offer services which risk contravening “net neutrality”. One of these is zero-rating, where a provider does not bill for data to specific services. Service-specific bundles are also common, with Cell C selling a WhatsApp bundle for R15 – which is intended to last for a month.
It also launched promotional social bundles to compete with Telkom’s FreeMe offerings. Net neutrality pundits have raised concerns over this practice, arguing that services which enjoy “special treatment” have an advantage over competitors.
The basic tenet of net neutrality – treat all legitimate traffic over a network equally – is ostensibly good. Upholding this principle in its purest form is not always practical on a real network, however.
Voice over IP services, video calling, live video streaming, and gaming traffic tend to be sensitive to loss and latency. It therefore makes sense to prioritise these protocols over less-sensitive taks, like peer-to-peer downloads. To see what the local industry thinks of net neutrality, MyBroadband spoke to experts in South Africa’s Internet landscape.
Cybersmart CTO Laurie Fialkov said he struggles to see how zero-rating and net neutrality are related. “To say zero-rating services is a threat to net neutrality is ludicrous,” said Fialkov. “Facebook zero-rates their content to sell adverts, similarly Google zero-rates their search for the same reason.”
It only becomes a problem if no one can compete with the bundled pricing, and the company offering predatory pricing has significant market share. “If zero-rating the content makes it impossible for other providers to compete, that is a competition issue rather than a net neutrality issue.” “If a service such as Wikipedia, which has always been free and publicly available, is bought by an AT&T and is then only free with one of their subscriptions, then and only then is there an argument that zero-rating violates net-neutrality.”
FTTH Council Africa
The CEO of FTTH Council Africa, Juanita Clark, said it is important that zero-rating is underpinned by quality of service, and because a site is free should not mean it can be slow. “In the perfect world net neutrality is a great concept, but there are many questions that need to be answered before we can achieve healthy net neutrality,” said Clark. One of the Council’s major concerns is the widening digital gap, said Clark.
“As a country, we cannot afford widespread social exclusion and we have to find ways of connecting people – especially those in rural areas – to other communities.” The FTTH Council Africa is against preferential treatment of online content that results in some sites being slowed down, however, while others are sped up. “We do not agree that companies should have the right to pay for faster sites,” said Clark.
In the short term, though, Clark believes that zero-rating can be a saving grace in South Africa. “Anything pertaining to people’s rights, health, and education should be zero-rated.”
“Fundamentally, we’d love to find a way to take data out of the equation and without getting dragged into the wider net neutrality debate,” said Showmax. “It’s fair to say that we’re in favour of being able to implement solutions that let us do that for our customers.” As a starting point, Showmax added features like downloads and allows subscribers to choose from a number of different streaming quality levels.
Netflix said that although it didn’t ask to be included in zero-rated offers in South Africa – which it currently is through Telkom’s LIT service – Telkom does not prioritise the data over any other traffic on its network, which is good for net neutrality.
“We’d also prefer that they have consistent, open, and realistic criteria which they apply fairly to determine which services can participate,” said Netflix.
“We’ll try to persuade them that would be the right thing to do.”