Dear India, it’s time to have a conversation about broadband data caps

Pranav Dixit July 4, 2016 9 min

I don’t know about you but each time I fire up Netflix, my stress levels go through the roof. I’d chalk some of that up to what I’m watching — the first season of Penny Dreadful, a show full of gore, violence, and nightmarish creatures. But mostly, I’m stressing out about just how much data the damn show is blowing through while streaming in high-definition.

My internet service provider, Airtel, caps my monthly data at 80 GB. That may sound like a lot, but consider this: by Netflix’s estimation, watching an hour of high-definition video consumes about 3 GB of data. Penny Dreadful’s first season has eight episodes that run approximately 60 minutes each — which means a leisurely weekend of binge-watching can instantly eat through a fourth of my monthly data cap.

We’re a household of cord-cutters. Inside the television cabinet, our Tata Sky box lies forgotten, the subscription expired months ago. We watch our movies on Netflix, HotStar, iTunes, and Google Play. We stream our music off Apple Music, Gaana, and Saavn. YouTube is bursting at the seams with original content from indie producers like TVF that beats the pants off every TV show featuring weeping bahus and icchadhari naagins.

It’s like the world is ours for the taking — right up till the moment when we burst through our data cap like wild horses, and Airtel snaps the reins. When this happens, our internet goes from a blazing 16 Mbps to a slow-as-molasses 512 Kbps — the government’s minimum defined broadband speed— barely enough to check email.

This phenomenon is called FUP. It’s short for Fair Usage Policy, but it might as well stand for Fucked Up Practice. The idea is simple: as soon as you use up your monthly data allowance, your ISP will throttle your speed to near-unusable levels. You have two options to get around this: switch to a more expensive plan that gives you a little more data, or buy a couple of gigabytes of data — enough for about 45 minutes of a single episode of Penny Dreadful — for a couple of hundred bucks.

“The problem with data caps is that they haven’t managed to keep up with the changing habits of internet users in India over time.”

Nearly every major internet service provider in the country has followed in Airtel’s footsteps ever since the company introduced the policy some time at the end of the last decade. The unfortunate fallout is that there is almost no way to get a truly unlimited broadband connection in India even as consumer demand for data shoots through the roof.

“The problem with data caps is that they haven’t managed to keep up with the changing habits of internet users in India over time,” says Tarun Pathak, senior analyst at Counterpoint Research. “The average data cap in the United States is about 300 GB a month, while in India, it ranges between 8 GB to 100 GB depending on your plan.” Sure, there are exceptions. ACT Broadband, a popular South Indian service provider, and Hayai, which has taken Mumbai by storm, do offer plans with higher data caps, but these are often exorbitant. Both Airtel and ACT declined to comment for this story.

The most common reason why ISPs say they impose limits on wired broadband connections is to prevent a few people from hogging the bandwidth at the expense of other customers on the network. “A small number of customers use an excessive amount of the network bandwidth and impairs the experience of a large majority,” says Airtel on its FUP page. “Through this policy, seek to address this imbalance and give all users the opportunity to experience the network in the same way.”

The problem with this explanation? It’s bullshit.

What causes congestion in a network is not the amount of data used, but the number of people simultaneously trying to transfer data through that network. Transferring a smaller file over a network takes up the same amount of bandwidth as transferring a larger file — the larger file just takes longer to transfer. In other words, the amount of traffic moved over a network is not a limiting factor at all.

Data, after all, is binary — it is not a limited resource. What is a limited resource is the rate or the bandwidth at which you can send this data down the pipe. So while you can only send so much data down a single connection at any one point in time, the fact is that any amount of data can be sent over time.

I’d ramble on, but I’m just going to point you to this excellent animated explainer about data caps that tells you exactly why your ISP is being less-than-honest with you when they explain why they’re capping your data.

So why are ISPs doing this? The reason is simple. Money. “FUP in India is linked only to profit,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, Global Policy Director at AccessNow, an internet policy and advocacy group. “What is this explanation they give about abuse of data? They just want you to buy a more expensive plan.” ISPs have figured out ways to monetise these artificial data caps really aggressively by trying to sell customers even more data before the end of their billing cycle, says Chima. “They don’t want to provide you unlimited access at all. It’s not in their interest.”

The major reason why ISPs can hold you to ransom over data also boils down to the severe lack of competition in the Indian wired broadband market. In East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar neighbourhood where I live, I have access to exactly two ISPs — Airtel and Nextra, both of which charge nearly identical rates, and none of which offer truly unlimited, or even a reasonably limited amount of data. FactorDaily’s consulting editor, Josey Puliyenthuruthel, has access only to the state-owned MTNL at his Central Delhi apartment, which offers a highest speed of 4 Mbps, and does not offer any plans with truly unlimited data. The wired broadband service provider cartels in India are like the cable-operator monopolies of the 90s — arrogant, expensive, and territorial.

To be fair, this problem exists in mature digital markets like the United States too. But unlike India, where telecom regulator TRAI is largely silent on wired broadband internet in the country, US regulators have been vocal about the lack of competition in the broadband market, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Last year, the US Justice Department noted that 70% of all homes in the US have access to a just a single broadband provider at the most — or in the worst case, no broadband provider — that meets the FCC’s definition of high-speed service (25 Mbps versus India’s 512 kbps).

But the bigger problem is the severe lack of public engagement with the regulator over this issue in India. “How many groups do you see engaging with the TRAI on this issue?” asks Chima. In contrast, consumer complaints about data caps in the United States rose to 7,904 in the second half of 2015 from just 863 in the first half, according to records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

In the raging discussion about 4G, wireless mobile internet access, and getting a billion unconnected Indians online, we have lost sight of the dismal state of wired broadband in the country.

The last time TRAI tried to address the problem of FUP in India was in July 2012, when it issued a directive to Indian ISPs to be transparent about data caps and not advertise plans as “unlimited”. Four years later, ISPs are still advertising their plans as “unlimited”, with the fine print that customers’ speeds would be knocked down to 512 kbps once they hit a data cap usually tucked away in an obscure corner. The TRAI issued yet another draft paper on FUP in January of this year, but the problem with it is that it deals largely with transparency and minimum post-FUP speeds that service providers would have to maintain, rather than questioning the rationale behind capping data in the first place.

“TRAI should be asking service providers more hard questions about FUP and regulating tariffs, which they are not doing at all,” says Chima. “The fact is that wireline businesses are essentially doing what they want. They are hostile to customers and they do not want any more discussion and scrutiny about their business practices.”

In the raging discussion about 4G, wireless mobile internet access, and getting a billion unconnected Indians online, we have lost sight of the dismal state of wired broadband in the country. According to figures released by the TRAI, India had 134.04  million wireless internet consumers in April 2016 — and just 17.5 million broadband users.

Our laser-sharp focus on mobile internet access is a bit dangerous, says Chima, because it takes away the focus on wireline connectivity in India. It’s much easier to justify data caps on mobile — spectrum, after all, is a limited resource — than to justify them on wireline broadband where the only limiting factor is whether you can get a fibre-optic cable to an apartment or not.

Last month, Google announced that over 1.5 million Indians were using its free, high-speed WiFi service at 19 railway stations each day. That number itself is notable, but the most important statistic was buried deep within the story: the average consumption of data at these railway stations was 15 times what these users would consume on a 3G pack in a single day. Most of this usage came from streaming video, downloading apps, and upgrading their phone’s software — activities that consume large amounts of data.

What does this mean? It means that as far as consuming data goes, Indians are parched, thanks, solely, to greedy ISPs that create artificial data scarcity just to squeeze an extra few hundred rupees out of them each month.

For the last few years, India has consistently ranked at the bottom of the list of countries in terms of average internet speed in the Asia-Pacific region according to Akamai’s State of the Internet reports (3.5 Mbps in the first quarter of 2016, compared to 29 Mbps in South Korea). For a country that is pushing initiatives like Digital India and Startup India, that, in itself, is shameful — but numbers about average data consumption over wired broadband in the country are shockingly hard to come by. If Akamai or another company calculates that number, I am pretty sure we would still be at the bottom of the pile.

In an interview with the BBC in 2008, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, said: “When something is such a creative medium as the web, the limits to it are our imagination.”

Let our imagination, then, and not short-term corporate greed, be the only limit to what — and how much — we can access online.

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj