Pipes, Platforms, the Internet and Zero Rating

My friend Sangeet Paul Chaudary, who runs Platform Thinking Labs, likes to describe the world in terms of “pipes” and “platforms”. One of the themes of his work is that we are moving away from a situation of “dumb pipes”, which simply connect things without intelligence, to that of “smart platforms”. Read the entire Wired piece (liked above) to appreciate it fully.

So I was reading this excellent paper on Two-Sided Markets by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole (both associated with the Toulouse School of Economics) earlier today, and I found their definition of two-sided markets (the same as platform business) striking. This is something I’d struggled with in the past (I admit to saying things like “every market is two-sided. There’s a buyer and a seller”), especially given the buzzword status accorded to the phrase, but it is unlikely I’ll struggle again. The paper says:

A necessary condition for a market to be two-sided is that the Coase theorem does not apply to the relation between the two sides of the markets: The gain from trade between the two parties generated by the interaction depends only on the total charge levied by the platform, and so in a Coase (1960) world the price structure is neutral.

This is an absolutely brilliant way to define two-sided markets. The paper elaborates:

Definition 1: Consider a platform charging per-interaction charges a^B and a^S to the buyer and seller sides. The market for interactions between the two sides is one-sided if the volume V of transactions realized on the platform depends only on the aggregate price level

a=a^B +a^S

i.e., is insensitive to reallocations of this total price a between the buyer and the seller. If by contrast V varies with a^B while a is kept constant, the market is said to be two-sided.

So for a market to be two-sided, i.e. for it to be intermediated by an “intelligent platform” rather than a “dumb pipe”, the volume of transactions should depend not only on the sum of prices paid by the buyer and seller, but on each price independently.

The “traditional” neutral internet, by this definition, is a platform. The amount of content I consume on Youtube, for example, is a function of my internet plan – the agreement between my internet service provider and me on how much I get charged as a function of what I consume. It doesn’t depend on the total cost of transmitting that content from Youtube to me. In other words, I don’t care what Youtube pays its internet service provider for the content it streams. Transaction costs (large number of small transactions) also mean that it is not practically possible for Youtube to subsidise my use of their service in this model.

Note that if buyers and sellers on a platform can make deals “on the side”, it ceases to be a platform, for now only the total price charged to the two matters (side deals can take care of any “adjustments”). The reason this can’t take place for a Youtube like scenario is that you have a large number of small transactions, accounting for which imposes massive transaction costs.

The example that Rochet and Tirole take while explaining this concept in their paper is very interesting (note that the paper was written in 2004):

…As the variable charge for outgoing traffic increases, websites would like to pass this cost increase through to the users who request content downloads…

..an increase in their cost of Internet traffic could induce websites that post content for the convenience of other users or that are cash-strapped, to not produce or else reduce the amount of content posted on the web, as they are unable to pass the cost increase onto the other side.

Note how nicely this argument mirrors what Indian telecom companies are saying on the Zero Rating issue. That a general increase in cost of internet access for consumers can result in small “poor” consumers to not consume on the internet at all, as they are unable to pass on the cost to the other side!

Fascinating stuff!

Making Zero Rating work without disruption

The Net Neutrality debate in India has seen a large number of analogies being raised, in order to help people understand and frame the debate. Internet services have been variously compared to television, postal services, highways, markets and what not. Things got so bad that that at some point in time people had to collectively denounce all analogies, for they were simply taking away from the debate.

One of the analogies that were being drawn in an argument in favour of Zero Rating was to compare it to e-commerce companies that provide free shipping, for example, or the deep discounts provided by services such as Uber or Ola. If you ban zero rating, other legitimate activities such as free shipping will be next, critics of net neutrality argued, arguing that there would be no end to this. The counter-argument is that free shipping doesn’t disrupt the basic structure of the market while zero rating does. Here is a way in which zero rating can be made to work without disrupting the market.

And it is a rather simple one – cash transfers. Rather than an e-commerce company subsidising your browsing of their website directly (by paying the telecom provider to make your access free), they can instead refund your costs of browsing their sites in terms of a discount. Going back into the analogy space, this is similar to malls that charge you heavily for parking but then offset your parking fees against any purchase you make in the mall.

So Flipkart, for example, can estimate the amount of bandwidth a particular user would have spent in browsing their app (not hard to track at all, especially if the user uses the app), and any purchase on their site can be appropriately discounted to that extent (and maybe a little more to cover for browsing that didn’t lead to a purchase).

This works in several ways. In the current proposed model of Zero Rating, the e-commerce company doesn’t know how many users will access it, using each ISP, so there is uncertainty in the amount that they have to pay the ISPs for such access. By moving to a user-wise subsidy model, they know exactly what users are using how much, and this enables them to target the subsidies much better. Another way in which it helps the retailer is that it doesn’t waste money spending on bandwidth for people who only browse the website without buying (of course, if they wish to, they can subsidise such usage also, but since it can be so obviously gamed, they won’t do it).

More importantly, what such a system ensures is that the internet is not broken. You might recall my earlier post on this topic that zero rating results in “walled gardens” that leads to a broken internet which reduces the overall value of the internet. With a cash transfer scheme (rather than direct subsidy), such distortions are avoided, and the internet remains “free” (of any barriers, not free of cost) and maximum value of the internetwork is realised.

So as described above it is well possible for e-commerce players to subsidise users’ browsing of their apps without distorting the internet, and without using zero rating. And as shown above, doing so is in their interest.

PS: This post also came out of the same discussions from which my earlier post on 2ab had come out.


I was never a big fan of “brainstorming”. I’m referring to those meetings where everyone gets together and thinks aloud, in order to converge to a solution. In the past, when I’ve been involved in such exercises, they’ve mostly come to nothing, and mostly ended with a list of to-dos which got never done (this was mostly in a corporate context). As a consequence, I started hating large meetings also (either most people wouldn’t add value or it would end up like a group discussion with everyone shouting), and have been trying to avoid them.

This time, though, it was different. The context was not corporate. The agenda did not involve an item of day to day work. None of us had a firm stand on the topic at the beginning of the meeting, with each of us having our own apprehensions of either stand (when people come with preconceived ideas and biases, there usually is nothing to storm our brains about).

And so we got together. And we talked. There were times when no one spoke. There were times when it actually turned out to be like a group discussion (I actually said, “ok I have ten points which I haven’t been able to make in the last one hour. I’ve written them down and let me shoot now”). But the situation never got out of hand. Mutual respect meant that cross-talk quickly died out, and we listened to each other. And it was extremely civil.

And then things started crystallising. Soon, some of us had an opinion. Later, others did. Some were ultimately not convinced, but had an opinion anyway. In a period of about twenty minutes somewhere in the third hour of the session, we all seemed to have an “aha moment” (apologies for that consultantspeak). But such moments occurred at different times for each of us.

And then we did the usual thing of “going round the table” for each of us to express our opinions. And then we did. And as each of us expressed our opinions, we discussed it further. Things crystallised better. And we ended the meeting asking everyone who was there to blog about it.

This is what I wrote:

given that these two internets are independent, the total value is a^2 + b^2. Now, if we were to tear down the walls, and combine the two internets into one, what will be the total value? Now that we have one network of (a+b) users, the value of the network is (a+b)^2 or a^2 + 2 ab + b^2 . So what is the additional benefit that we can get by imposing net neutrality, which means that we will have one internet? 2 ab, of course!

This is what Nitin wrote:

If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

Varun wrote this:

the regulator’s two major tasks are to enhance social welfare by protecting the consumer interest and to create an environment that is conducive for business — that will further enhance social welfare. A neutral internet will definitely benefit the consumers interest; but since the regulatory framework is not conducive for business, it appears that net-neutrality is in conflict with business interests. The situation can change if the regulatory framework is eased and the markets are opened up.

And Pranay wrote this:

net neutrality as a principle must be upheld. This is because communication network providers should not have the unfair advantage of being able to price internet content differently. Once the communication networks are setup, costs do not change with consumers accessing different content. In any case, the communication service providers are free to have fair internet usage policies to prevent induced demand effects

Gautam went down approximately the same path as me, and wrote this:

This is exactly why I oppose Zero Rating as well, whether paid or unpaid – it tends towards creating pockets of disconnected users per telecom company and while this is valuable for the telecom company and the applications and sites that are zero-rated, it reduces the total utility of the public internet, as a whole.

Devika deviated a bit from the crowd. This is what she said:

That said, it does not mean that ISPs should be restricted from entering into contracts with content providers. If Flipkart wants to undertake a joint marketing initiative with Bharti Airtel, it should be allowed to so. For example, Flipkart can give benefits to Airtel from sharing their customer base. To be extremely clear, such collaborations should not hinder access to any other internet sites. This will maintain a level playing field for all content providers.

Anupam, too, differed, and argued that customers need to be given choice:

If a person runs his business solely based on international VoIP calls and doesn’t mind paying extra for ensuring reliability and speed, he should be able to access that privilege. Or, for that matter, a Facebook or Twitter addict who wants these apps to be quick such that they can post real time selfies, should be able to choose these apps over say, apps which give real time updates on political happening in Nicaragua. Thus, people can be given a choice as to which data packets have to be prioritized within their limited bandwidth

And Pavan argued that competition is alone not sufficient:

However, if  the internet is a public good – will competition ever be sufficient to ensure the vibrancy of the network? Will competition be sufficient to improve the effective network size? I would argue that it might fall short of the mark. Thus, regulations that enforce net neutrality may be necessary to prevent ‘walled gardens’ from springing up.

As you can see, our opinions at the end of the meetings all differ. But you can also see that the posts are all well-argued, implying that at the end of the meeting we all had a reasonable degree of clarity. And that is what made it a brilliant brainstorming session.

Now if only all other brainstorming sessions were to be as good! Oh, and it’s a long post already but here are some #learnings on what makes for a successful brainstorming session:

  • Open minds on behalf of participants
  • Mutual respect, and giving everyone a chance to speak
  • No overbearing participants or moderators, leading to a freewheeling debate

As you can see, all these are similar to what makes a multiplayer gencu successful! But brainstorming has a specific agenda, so it’s not a gencu!

How 2ab explains net neutrality

I’ve temporarily resurrected my blog on the Indian National Interest, and this post is mirrored from there. This is a serious argument, btw. After a prolonged discussion at Takshashila this morning, I convinced myself that net neutrality is a good idea.

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set off this little storm on Twitter by talking about the relationship between India and Canada being similar to the “2ab term” in the expansion of (a+b)^2 .

Essentially, Modi was trying to communicate that the whole of the relationship between India and Canada is greater than the sum of parts, and it can be argued that the lack of a “cos \theta” term there implies that he thinks India and Canada’s interests are perfectly aligned (assuming a vector sum).

But that is for another day, for this post is about net neutrality. So how does 2ab explain net neutrality? The fundamental principle of the utility of the Internet is Metcalfe’s law which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of entities in the network. In other words, if a network has n entities, the value of these n entities being connected is given by the formula k n^2 . We can choose the unit in which we express utility such that we can set k = 1, which means that the value of the network is n^2.

Now, the problem with not having net neutrality is that it can divide the internet into a set of “walled gardens”. If your internet service provider charges you differentially to access different sites, then you are likely to use more of the sites that are cheaper and less of the more expensive sites. Now, if different internet service providers will charge different websites and apps differently, then it is reasonable assume that the sites that customers of different internet services access are going to be different?

Let us take this to an extreme, and to the hypothetical case where there are two internet service providers, and they are not compatible with each other, in that the network that you can access through one of these providers is completely disjoint from the network that you can access through the other provider (this is a thought experiment and an extreme hypothetical case). Effectively, we can think of them as being two “separate internets” (since they don’t “talk to” each other at all).

Now, let us assume that there are a users on the first internet, and b users on the second (this is bad nomenclature according to mathematical convention, where a and b are not used for integer variables, but there is a specific purpose here, as we can see). What is the total value of the internet(s)?

Based on the formula described earlier in the post, given that these two internets are independent, the total value is a^2 + b^2. Now, if we were to tear down the walls, and combine the two internets into one, what will be the total value? Now that we have one network of (a+b) users, the value of the network is (a+b)^2 or a^2 + 2 ab + b^2 . So what is the additional benefit that we can get by imposing net neutrality, which means that we will have one internet? 2 ab, of course!

In other words, while allowing internet service providers to charge users based on specific services might lead to additional private benefits to both the providers (higher fees) and users (higher quality of service), it results in turning the internet into some kind of a walled garden, where the aggregate value of the internet itself is diminished, as explained above. Hence, while differential pricing (based on service) might be locally optimal (at the level of the individual user or internet service provider), it is suboptimal at the aggregate level, and has significant negative externalities.

#thatswhy we need net neutrality.

Why Google, Facebook, etc. are against Net Neutrality in India

I’ve been out of country for close to a month now, so haven’t really been following India news too closely (apart from via social media). But from my (biased 🙂 ) sources I understand that TRAI has put out a discussion paper in which they want to permit telecom companies to charge you based on the service that you use, thus violating Net Neutrality.

Now I’m yet to take a stand on this (this argument by Tim Harford against Net Neutrality is rather compelling, making me believe that well implemented competition regulations can mean we can make do without Net Neutrality, but I haven’t given it too much thought yet), but I have an idea as to why the likes of Google and Facebook, which in the past and in other geographies have come out strongly in favour of Net Neutrality, are okay with Net Neutrality violation in India.

The basic issue in India is with “over the top” services such as WhatsApp and Viber which the likes of Airtel and Vodafone see as a threat for it competes with their rather lucrative voice and SMS business. I’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a quality issue here which the telecom companies can differentiate on (packet switching doesn’t work that well for voice), but given costs it is hard to make a compelling case for using circuit switching for international calls.

So the likes of Airtel and Vodafone are threatened by such services and want to charge users more for using WhatsApp and Viber compared to other applications. Net Neutrality supporters, who argue that internet infrastructure should just be a set of neutral pipes (rather than a “two-sided platform”, as Harford argues), argue that this is unfair, and that Airtel and Vodafone are exploiting their positions as gatekeepers (literally) to defend their own related business.

Coming to the point of this post, entities such as Google and Facebook are coming out on the “wrong” side of the net neutrality debate here in India, arguing that internet companies should be looked at as two-sided platform markets rather than neutral pipes (resisted the urge to use the phrase “information superhighway” there!). Considering that they’re proponents of Net Neutrality elsewhere, why are they taking this stance in India?

Assuming that final regulations come out in favour of net neutrality (treating internet as infrastructure, and not a platform), how should the likes of Airtel and Vodafone react? Clearly their data business is cannibalising their voice business, so they should logically increase their prices for data plans (no brainer). Given that they will not be allowed (in this situation) to charge differential rates based on the service, they will have to uniformly jack up data rates.

This can be troublesome for Google and Facebook on two counts. Firstly, the telecom providers may not get their pricing right, and rather than having a ramp (charging heavy users heavily, since only such people will be using WhatsApp or Viber), they might increase data rates across the board. This will result in a drop in mobile internet penetration (one reason it’s so high now is that it’s cheap), and considering that Google and Facebook are services that pretty much every who uses the internet in India uses, it will result in loss of user base, traffic and revenue (possibly) for them.

The second problem is that even if telecom operators get their pricing right (maintain current pricing for basic plans, but jack up rates for high data usage) it spells trouble for Google and Facebook. One of Google’s widely used services is the video streaming application Youtube, and Youtube consumes high bandwidth. Facebook is getting into native video in a big way, and it is estimated that it might be more successful than Youtube in terms of advertising. And with correct internet pricing under net neutrality, demand for services such as Youtube and Facebook Video will go down significantly, which is not good for those services.

So the simple answer is that the reason Google and Facebook are coming out against Net Neutrality is that they are coming out on the right side of the new proposed (anti neutrality) regulations. Like WhatsApp and Viber, they too are high bandwidth applications, but unlike WhatsApp or Viber they don’t compete directly with the owners of the pipes. Thus, they want providers to have the ability to impose differential pricing, since that will mean that subscribers can access their content for cheaper, and this allows them to make more advertising revenues.

In my view (again note that I’m yet to take a stand on this net neutrality business), this move by Google and Facebook to support the anti-neutrality regulations is extremely short-sighted since it can hit them back at a later point in time. There is no guarantee that in the long term their services will not compete with that of telecom providers (Hangouts? Facebook voice calling?) and the regulations that they are currently supporting can come back to hit them at a later point in time.

It seems that Google and Facebook are working on an assumption that there will not be other high-bandwidth applications that will compete less with pipe-owners (telecom operators) than them (Google & Facebook). They are very likely to be in for a surprise, and end up as the cranes in this Panchatantra story.