On the face of things, there is little common between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and telecom major, but both are losing the perception battle – the PMO on the land acquisition Bill and Bharti Airtel on its Airtel Zero product. None of this has to do with the intrinsic properties of their propositions – the land Bill will benefit the country, including farmers, and Airtel Zero allows those without data plans to access certain websites/apps with the payments to be made by companies such as Flipkart (before it withdrew). Mobs, however, are easy to incite/create, especially in the time of the Internet 2.0 where 140 characters and hashtags rule, not cold logic. India’s farmers are migrating to cities for better wages and you need land to build cities for them – you need even more land for creating irrigation facilities for those left behind, but try telling that to the mobs egged on by political parties like the Congress and the Trinamool. Or take replacing the current system of subsidies where less than half reaches the poor – direct cash transfers are far better, but you can get 30 crore signatures (roughly the number of poor in the country) to sign a petition against this since smart campaigners will convince the poor that their rights are being bartered.
As FE has been arguing repeatedly, net neutrality sounds very good, but if OTT players like Skype and WhatsApp eat into the revenues of the Bharti Airtels and Vodafones, the latter will either stop rolling out networks for 85% of Indians who don’t have access to the internet or will hike data tariffs for everyone – a more just solution, naturally, would be to charge higher rates for the OTT players while keeping rates low for the bulk of the population which just wants to surf the net looking for data or to buy/sell their produce. And, in any case, in which industry, from airlines to electricity, aren’t differential tariffs the order of the day? Airlines charge differential rates on the same aircraft and governments/regulators encourage subsidized tariffs for households and over-charging trade/industry to make up for this.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to address the perception problem through radio talks and by getting his ministers to constantly address the land Bill issue at every chance they get, Bharti Airtel is fighting a lone battle. Since this is a very public issue and will even figure in Parliament, the battle cannot be won by talking to individual bureaucrats/ministers. Telcos need to unite and run a very public battle – to get internet-less consumer groups behind them, to explain to them and the government that voice calling on WhatsApp is not cheaper because of altruism or a great technology – it is because WhatsApp doesn’t pay a 15-16% license/spectrum charge or a 34% corporate tax. It was a similar battle – with combined press conferences of telecom CEOs and full-page newspaper advertisements – that a united industry fought between 2001 and 2003 when the government was hell-bent on providing a back-door mobile phone entry to Reliance and the Tatas. At one time, the cellular mobile industry even cut off access to these telcos, forcing the then telecom minister to cut short an overseas trip. This forced the government to level the playing field by also giving cellular telcos calling-party-pays rights and by charging Reliance/Tata the same license fees the Bharti Airtels had paid. While telcos are deeply divided, they can win only by playing a united and high-decibel game, exactly the way US telcos are playing. Mark Zuckerberg getting into the game to defend his internet.org, an Airtel Zero kind of product, will help a bit, but Indian telcos need to do the heavy lifting themselves.