The principle of net neutrality is that all content is equal and should be treated as such by internet service providers.

But Telkom Group chief executive Sipho Maskeo says that he has a “personal, philosophical problem” with this.

“If we should all be treated equally, then there should be no business (class) flight from Jo’burg to Cape Town, let’s all just pay the same amount of money in a hotel,” says Maseko.

The crux of the argument is that if the internet should be the subject to neutrality, then all sectors should be treated equally. The words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm came rushing to the fore, “all animals are equal.”

While not as ominous as the Russian Revolution as told through the eyes of farm animals, Maseko’s argument is problematic.

I can choose to fly business class or economy class, but if I want to contact my friends on Social Network A and my ISP has throttled connections to the platform in favour of Social Network B because the latter pays it a hefty sum every month for prioritised connections, that’s not really my choice.

Maseko says that net neutrality forces ISPs to invest in infrastructure while OTT services are able to reap the benefits of the infrastructure these ISPs put into place.

It’s a similar argument that was presented to parliament earlier this year when discussion were had about the regulation of OTT services such as WhatsApp who doesn’t provide any sort of investment into the infrastructure but are free to run on the networks required to make their services work.

When you look at the argument from that angle, well, Maseko’s argument makes some sense.

“Why should the burden of investment be on one guy and the benefits of high (profit) margins be for one guy,” Maseko explains.

The problem is not only on the side of OTT services, a portion of Maseko’s views on net neutrality rest on the users.

“Telecommunications is one of the only sectors I know of where people want to pay less, but expect more,” he says.

Maseko goes on to explain that the telecommunciations sector is constantly evolving and while prices of equipment increases, tariffs on electricity increases and staff want increases, his sector is expected to charge lower and lower rates.

The question then is, where does that money come from? It’s important to remember that the equipment that is used is imported and is priced in dollars. While your home might still be using the same router you got three years ago, ISPs don’t have that luxury, if they fail to keep up with trends they fall behind.

“Those economics get distorted because somehow, the price per MB must come down,” Maseko explains. “It’s an impossible business model.”

While I am an advocate for an open, fair internet I can understand why Maseko feels the way he does. Net neutrality has been discussed at length in places such as the US and the UK but those discussions are not related to Africa and the African problems we face. ISPs such as Telkom have to invest a great deal more in infrastructure than their counterparts over the pond simply because not everybody is within spitting distance of a cell tower or fibre connection.

I make no illusions that this is not a tricky subject. One could say that Google should pay but Duck Duck Go shouldn’t but could you imagine the fallout from a deal such as that?

One also then needs to consider the move by numerous ISPs to allow univeristies to zero-rate the data used to access their websites earlier this year during #FeesMustFall protests. Under the definition of net neutrality that is unacceptable, but in Africa the cost of access is often prohibitively expensive.

Maseko’s thoughts on the subject signal that its time to have a serious discussion surrounding net neutrality and I suspect that it will be a matter that will need to be handled carefully.

The last thing we want in South Africa is to see “All websites are equal” for a moment before “but some websites are more equal than others” gets tacked onto the end.

[Image – CC BY SA 2.0 Michael Sonnabend]