I'm not sure if you've been keeping up on the net-neutrality debates happening in the US, but I wanted to take a moment to propose a less severe version of this for Jamaica based on an article I read about Digicel blocking certain services they deem to be competitive.
First, some background.
The net-neutrality debates in the US are focused on whether or not ISPs should be allowed to expose "internet fast lanes" for a surcharge. The debate centers around the issue of smaller companies (ie, startups) not being able to afford those faster speeds, and therefore being at a competitive disadvantage.
If Big Company had a video sharing website that was terrible but they paid the extra $100m USD per year to keep it fast, even a better video sharing website (think YouTube when it was starting) wouldn't be able to compete because it would be considered too slow compared to Big Company's site.
So where is the debate?
The debate I think we should be having in Jamaica is slightly less extreme than the one happening in the US.
I think we should consider drafting legislation similar to the Netherlands’ Telecommunications Act that says that ISPs cannot deliberately throttle traffic based on the content or purpose of that traffic (barring a few exceptions including throttling for congestion, integrity and security of the network, spam, or legal reasons).
If Digicel, LIME, or Flow decide to add a "faster lane" of traffic, we should debate the legality of charging for that later. For now, I'm saying no one should be slowed down.
Why does this even matter?
If Jamaica is serious about relying on innovation and investment in technology to level the playing field when competing on a global market, we cannot be at the whim of an Irish Telecom's top line revenue or quarterly targets.
It would be terrible to see a Digicel executive decide, in an attempt to meet revenue targets for the quarter, say "Let’s block WhatsApp so that people have to spend a bit more on text messages this month", or "Let’s charge WhatsApp a fee to allow their app to be used on our network".
Investment is already risky enough, and without any protections that Jamaican software companies won't be arbitrarily cut-off (or worse: held hostage) by an ISP, it isn't reasonable to continue investing in technology in the country.
Put simply: I won't be able to reasonably invest in tech companies targeting Jamaica.
As an investor in 10 Pound Pledge, I have to face the very real possibility of losing Caribbean customers based on an ISP not willing to deliver high-quality video content.
As an investor in EduFocal, I have to face the very real possibility that educational videos won't be delivered to customers without a hefty "transfer fee" (to be decided at the whim of the ISP).
As an investor in Blaze, I have to face the very real possibility that Digicel will build their own mobile money solution, and Blaze (being now found competitive to Digicel) will find themselves blocked from Digicel subscribers.
So what now?
I hope that Jamaican regulators and policymakers understand the implications of what they are allowing their telecom providers to do -- and the unintended and potentially disastrous consequences.
As an investor, I can certainly say that this move will make Jamaican-focused tech companies less competitive and less attractive for investment. It seems quite hypocritical for this to happen at a time when the government and the IMF are telling the Jamaican people that their main focus is on growing the economy.
Similarly, I hope that Jamaicans take a stand and tell their representatives that they won't tolerate discrimination of their data; that blocking traffic an ISP feels is "competitive" is unacceptable; that without treating all data the same, true innovation will be stifled just when we're starting to see great progress in Jamaica.