Delhi-based ISP Excitel offers four Internet plans, three of which serve YouTube and Hotstar at twice the speed of the rest of the Internet. In addition to these streaming services, software updates from Apple, Android, and Microsoft are also sped up. This is done via peering arrangements, where Internet providers connect directly with online content providers to improve the quality and speed of service for their customers.

Excitel’s ₹799 plan, for example, provides Internet access at 10Mbps, but YouTube, Hotstar, and software updates are 20Mbps, twice as fast. The same applies to the other two plans in the above screenshot.

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Meanwhile, Sifi Broadband, also based in Delhi, engages in the same behaviour. On their Internet plans, YouTube and Hotstar are between two to five times faster than the rest of the Internet.

On peering arrangements

Peering arrangements are common, and large Internet companies frequently connect directly with Internet providers (eg. Netflix Open Connect and Google Edge). Although there is no consensus on whether peering in itself is against net neutrality, offering peered services at twice the speed of the rest of the Internet is a clear violation. By putting YouTube and Hotstar on a “fast lane”, Excitel puts competing services like Vimeo and Netflix at a disadvantage.

Fast lanes have been the subject of contentious debate in the US and other countries where ISPs lobbied the government hard to allow them to engage in paid prioritisation, where some paying websites and services would be faster for the Internet providers’ customers. This practice is problematic because it creates an uneven playing field for content creators and reduces the choice that consumers would otherwise have on a neutral Internet.

Although the historic net neutrality ruling in February banned discrimination in the pricing of different websites and services, fast lanes are yet to be discussed in a consultation by the government. In the US, paid fast lanes were banned last year, effectively preventing Internet providers from creating a separate ‘fast’ tier of the Internet.

Since fixed-line broadband penetration in India is very low (17.67 million subscriptions as of two months ago), and data prices are restrictively expensive for most subscribers, Internet providers have typically not tried to maintain a fast lane. Additionally, the low broadband traffic due to data caps has meant that fast lanes haven’t intrigued ISPs much in India.

Small ISPs like Excitel, however, are setting a worrying precedent for net neutrality as broadband penetration increases and fast lanes become more appealing to ISPs.

Our three Net Neutrality principles:

Rule 1: All sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators shouldn’t block certain sites or apps just because they don’t pay them. No gateways should be created, in order to give preferential discovery to one site over another.

Rule 2: All sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP/telco level): This means no speeding up of certain sites because of business deals. More importantly, it means no slowing down (throttling) of some sites.

Rule 3: The cost of access must be the same for all sites (per Kb/Mb or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating”. In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access: all lanes are slow.

Disclosure: I am an intern at the Internet Freedom Foundation, an organisation that promotes and advocates, among other things, for net neutrality and an open Internet.