On the same day Singtel unveiled their new logo and new service commitments to customer service, their Group CEO Ms Chua Sock Koong also talked about discriminatory Internet access. She reiterated her belief that telcos should be allowed to charge major content providers a premium for users to get faster access to their content. I’m sorely disappointed.
Ms Chua used examples like WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube, as popular content providers who ought to pay SingTel for their subscribers, who are already paying SingTel for Internet access services, to access their content more quickly. It’s basically about clever ways to earn more money.
It’s understandable that every company wants to earn more money. After all, they need to maximise shareholder value. However, it’s one thing to maximise revenue, and another to conduct business fairly, morally, and ethically.
Singtel is saying, basically, because WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube are really popular, they want to earn extra from the use of those services. Singtel has no hand in these services, why do they think they deserve to be paid for using them? Singtel seems to think they deserve a cut because their network is used to carry Internet data between those content services and their users. However, remember that their users are already paying for their Internet access services!
Of course, asking the users to pay extra to use WhatsApp, Facebook, or YouTube is going to be highly unpopular. Instead, Singtel’s idea is to ask the content providers to pay so that their content can be more quickly accessed. An important key phrase here is “more quickly accessed”. No, Singtel won’t block the content, because doing so will be just as unpopular with their users, but they want to discriminate their traffic.
Now, if you’re thinking this is simply a commercial matter, like how football matches cost absurdly different to view on TV depending on which country you’re in, this is something quite different. Singtel is not the content provider. They are simply the transport for carrying Internet data.
Can you imagine if our public buses, on top of the standard distance-based fare scheme, wanted to levy a surcharge to go to Marina Bay Sands or Gardens by the Bay, because maybe they are really popular destinations? Oh, right, taxis are doing it. You’re slapped a surcharge for those two places, among other destinations, when you take a taxi. But taxis are not strictly public transport.
So in the case of what Singtel wishes to happen, they want businesses like Marina Bay Sands or Gardens by the Bay to pay a fee to the public bus operator, because their destinations are so popular. Perhaps in exchange the bus operator will then send more buses there.
You’d have thought if a certain destination were really popular, with very high passenger loads, the bus operator will put more buses on the route, use larger buses, or do something or other to meet the demand. Certainly not go asking the business owner to pay.
Hence, what Ms Chua wants to do is absurd. If you’re thinking as a consumer, as long as you don’t pay more, you don’t really care, well, that’s not the end of the story. The underlying matter concerns net neutrality. If you’ve not heard about it, it’s time you know something. The Wikipedia page on Net Neutrality is a start.
Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the network should be treated equally, without discrimination in one way or other. This is a hot topic in places like the United States, where even their President Barack Obama has weighed in on the debate.
You need to be concerned because discriminatory network practices will potentially lead to Internet access providers creating a tiered service model where some services are preferred over other types of services. This may enable the providers to promote their own content or related services while discouraging (or even removing) competition. They may also create artificial demand for uncompetitive services.
Many Internet access providers, like Singtel for example, are in multiple areas of business. For example, they might want to discourage WhatsApp so that you’ll use more SMS text messaging on your phone.
Have you heard of Lyke Store? It’s an e-commerce shopping site owned by Singtel. It’s failed and closed down. Now, can you see how Singtel might be motivated to discourage e-commerce shopping sites like Qoo10, Lazada, and numerous others, so that their Internet customers would prefer to shop at their own e-commerce site? Perhaps Lyke Store might have been more successful if Internet users were unable to get to Zalora or of the latter’s site was too slow.
This problem, of course, is not just limited to Singtel. Any network operator may be motivated to engage in such discriminatory practices. I’m only just singling Singtel out here because they seem pretty vocal about their right to engage in such practices. On the same day they hold a feel-good sort of PR event about new branding and better customer service, they just couldn’t resist the urge to also show their greed.
There’s the other side of the story, of course, coming from the network operators. Here’s how Ms Chua puts it, quoting from AsiaOne (22 Jan 2015):
“If network owners do not upgrade their network, OTT (over-the-top) content players cannot deliver a good experience to their customers,” Ms Chua said during the unveiling of the telco’s new logo yesterday. OTT services are not distributed by telcos, but reach consumers via telcos’ fixed broadband and mobile networks.
Pointing to the United States, where video streaming service provider Netflix pays broadband provider Comcast for a speed boost, she noted: “(If) you want to deliver (high) quality video, you want to buy some capacity wholesale.”
Ms Chua expects more of such arrangements to be set up over time. “Doing these wholesale deals is not new…It is something that telcos have been doing all the time,” she added, downplaying the issue as unrelated to “Net neutrality”.
She wants to think Singtel is like Comcast. Okay, I didn’t know Singtel was that lousy. When North Korea’s Internet went down, which might (or not) have been a cyberattack response from the United States to the former’s attack on Sony Pictures, Comcast was made the butt of many jokes.
“Soooooo…#NorthKorea has no internet service…they must have @comcast @XFINITY” — Read more on Gizmodo, really funny.
So let’s get this clear. Netflix was bullied into paying Comcast, because Netflix’s customers were impacted, so Netflix was in a bind.. Comcast’s network was simply too congested to handle the traffic from Netflix. The whole business of Netflix is to deliver high quality HD video, so you can imagine that must be quite some volume of traffic, totally not comparable with the likes of WhatsApp, one of those competitors that Singtel likely wants to snub out.
If that many Comcast customers want Netflix, shouldn’t Comcast try to work something out to improve connectivity toward Netflix? Seriously, was Comcast network really that bad? I get HD quality Netflix video here in Singapore, over a VPN, without problems.
That Comcast got away with Netflix’s payment doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Consider that Comcast also sells a TV streaming service. Now, don’t you sniff out some unfair competition going on there?
More often than not, the regular Internet access providers are the ones guilty of unfair practices. Check out the Singapore Open Exchange. It’s a free interconnect for Internet Service Providers to transit Internet traffic. Guess who are the ones missing from the member list?
According to Ms Chua, telcos are losing business to over-the-top content providers, which get away with not paying for using their infrastructure. Excuse me, your Internet access subscribers are paying for it.
The fact that Singtel could launch a new Unlimited Fibre Plan in August last year shows they are already practising some form of discriminatory traffic shaping. The new plan promises no traffic throttling. You pay more for that. If not, they will shape your traffic, which basically means some types of traffic are handled differently from other types of traffic.
To be clear, I didn’t mean this post to be a rant on Singtel in particular, though I’m displeased with their position on net neutrality. The more important issue is to bring attention to the matter of net neutrality.
You should be worried about these discriminatory practices. The Internet ought to be an open access network, fair, and neutral. I don’t disagree with some form of traffic shaping if it is necessary to ensure best use of available bandwidth under a congestion scenario. But the Internet must be operated like any other public infrastructure. It is a transport of Internet data, and this transport must go about its work without discriminating user or content provider.
If your network is slow and congested, perhaps you’re already oversubscribed. It’s time to do an upgrade. Instead of thinking how best to extract the last dollar out of anyone you can bully into coughing up the dough, offer your customers better value, retain them with better service, attract new ones with innovative service.