1. Airtel Zero, Facebook Internet.org row: Net neutrality debate in India is premature

Airtel Zero, Facebook Internet.org row: Net neutrality debate in India is premature

Net neutrality: At the moment, India should focus on what it takes to make broadband accessible for everyone.

By: | Updated: April 23, 2015 3:35 PM
net neutrality, net neutrality debate, net neutrality india, net neutrality row, Airtel Zero, Facebook, Internet.org, whatsapp, technology news

The web is prone to offences from hackers, virus attacks, piracy, spammers and so on. With India ranking third in the number of internet users (behind China and the US), it is vital to regulate and secure the ‘e-space’ for both businesses and individuals. (Rohnit Phore)

It is fascinating to see the heated debate that Airtel’s Zero and Facebook’s Internet.org have triggered. However, the current net neutrality debate in India seems premature and misses the point. The debate we need to have is not how to create undifferentiated access for service providers but how to create wide-reaching and affordable internet access for all Indians. At this stage in India’s broadband journey, connectivity is the key issue.

The concept of net neutrality has been around for well over a decade. Net neutrality aims at averting blocking, throttling or prioritisation of traffic to prevent broadband providers from disadvantaging consumers by controlling access to select services and to avoid discrimination of smaller online service providers. The underlying idea is that an open internet fosters innovation and allows customers to have access to all services.

With the rise of wireless broadband, the debate intensified and created major differences in perspectives. The reason lies in the technical and economic realities associated with mobile networks. Mobile is a shared bandwidth between users in a particular antenna location (or base stations). Increasing traffic reduces the bandwidth available to each user and can even crowd out some. The real, contentious issue here is video-streaming, as it consumes a disproportionate amount of bandwidth (30-40% of data traffic in India, and expected to rise to 60%). To deliver the unquenchable thirst for more data and video, operators need to continuously deploy more coverage, capacity and spectrum. This requires huge investments, especially in India where spectrum is expensive. Naturally, operators raise the question whether service providers with a disproportionate share of traffic should have a free-ride on their investments. To this extent, operators are seeking to get providers to fund a component of the cost of delivering such services. Already in the US, Comcast and Netflix have entered into a commercial arrangement. These arrangements both benefit consumers and rebalance the burden between broadband and online service providers.

In fact, consumers should ask the question whether net neutrality always results in a better customer experience? Unfortunately, in mobile networks, content-heavy services consume a huge surplus that can affect the experience of others. Frequently, analogies of electricity utilities or highways are being used to justify the need for net neutrality. However, the comparable implication in mobile networks would be that, if one household wants to run a heavy-duty air conditioning, neighbours would not have sufficient electricity left to power their fridges, or when one consumer wants to drive his luxury car on the highway, other drivers need to go for a pit-stop.

In any case, the current net neutrality debate seems premature for India. The broadband infrastructure is still insufficient and needs urgent acceleration. As we have consistently seen in other countries, broadband adoption is directly linked to coverage. India needs 80% to 90% coverage with 3G or 4G to achieve a step change in broadband adoption. This requires significantly more investments in towers, fiberisation of base stations, and spectrum. Contrary to common perception, Indian operators do not generate sufficient returns and have a very limited investment capacity. Without structural improvements in the industry, India is going to wait for a long time before the majority of Indians will have broadband access. Contributions and efforts by internet companies can certainly help ease that burden and make internet access more affordable for the masses. Else, consumers might end up paying through higher data charges.

Airtel’s Zero, Facebook’s Internet.org and similar efforts of zero-rated or sponsored data need to be seen in this light. The concept is not new and has been effectively used by many operators globally and in India for over a decade. In fact, free browsing on Google or Yahoo! or social media plans for Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc, have played a key role in driving the widespread adoption of mobile internet in the first place. Neither do they constitute a deliberate and sustainable bias towards industry leaders nor does it imply higher charges to consumers. Consumers can consume more megabytes for the same rupee amount, as some usage is now zero-rated.

Telecom operators should be allowed to differentiate services on the basis of value and quality; for example, by charging more for those services that might be offered beyond the ‘best-effort’ internet, by making targeted offers to different groups of consumers, or by charging service providers for better delivery. Imposing an excessively rigid interpretation of net neutrality to ban differential or zero-rated pricing is certainly counterproductive at this stage in India’s broadband journey.

Of course, level-playing fields for online service providers must be maintained. Open access must be non-negotiable and leading online service providers cannot be allowed to influence telecom operators to disadvantage their online competitors. This is where anti-competition laws and the regulator come in. In fact, regulators are already paying a lot of attention to this issue, as we have seen especially in the EU. Notably, the FCC, the regulator in the US, who has been spearheading most of the net neutrality debate, has decided to determine only on a case-by-case basis whether a particular zero-rated or sponsored data service is being used anti-competitively.

At the end, consumers will decide. Which operator would block YouTube videos or try to deliver poorer video quality? This can only end up in high customer dissatisfaction and churn. Differentiated consumer charging for voice-over-internet calls has been tried by several global operators before. However, consumers rejected it and operators have refrained. Similarly, messaging services such as WhatsApp, Viber or LINE have cannibalised SMS. Operators have reacted constructively and created integrated voice, SMS and data plans that have resonated well with consumers, as evidenced by the success of Vodafone’s RED plans in Europe.

India should focus on what it will take to make broadband accessible for everyone. Net neutrality is a good concept to create an open internet and foster innovation but it should not prevent pricing concepts by operators or economic support by online service providers that help make broadband more affordable for Indian consumers.

Nikolai Dobberstein

The author is partner, Head of Communications, Media & Technology, AT Kearney India

For Updates Check Editorials and Columns; follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Get live Stock Prices from BSE and NSE and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

  1. R
    Ralph Bernet
    Mar 6, 2017 at 7:35 am
    Testimony Of Transformation With The Help Of I am writing this Testimony because am really grateful for what Mr. James Oscar did for me and my family when I thought there was no hope he came and make my family feel alive again by lending us loan at a very low interest rate of 2%, well I have been searching for a loan to settle my debts and bills for the past months all I met scammed and took my money total 6,500usd until I finally met a God sent Lender. I never thought that there are still genuine lenders on the internet but to my greatest surprise i got my loan form this great company without wasting much time so if you are out there looking for a loan of any kind for business or other purposes i would advise you to email Mr James Oscar via: ( ) or through the Company website: and be free of internet scams. thanks… Ralph Bernet: Illinois, Chicago, United State
    1. B
      Mar 1, 2017 at 8:57 am
      o everyone... I am Mrs Sharon Lime by name currently living in New York, USA.. Am writing this letter because am really grateful for what Mrs  Mary Smart did for me and my family, when I thought there was no hope he came and make a way for me and my family by lending us loan, at a very low interest rate of 3%. I never thought that there are still God sent and genuine loan lenders on the internet but to my greatest surprise i got my loan without wasting much time so if you are out there looking for a loan of any amount i would like to recommend you to Mrs  Mary Smart the Managing director of MARY SMART FIRM   because he is a God sent man that can change your life forever.... So if you really want to make a better life without any fund scarcity.... I would advise you to get in touch with him through this e-mail below :: { E-mail:}. Thanks.  Mrs Mary Smart.
      1. B
        May 3, 2016 at 12:36 am
        Etes-vous financierement presse? Avez-vous besoin d'un prive ou professionnelprets a des fins diverses? Cherchez-vous prets a realiser de gs projets?Cherchez-vous un financement pour un usage personnel? Si oui, alors ne cherchez plus parce quenous offre tout type de pret financier prend en charge pour les entreprises et les prets a domicile,prets scolaires, les prets d'investist, les prets de transport, financement de projetet la ligne de prets de credit a un taux de 2% par annee d'interet. Contact E-mail: Si vous etes interesse, veuillez remplir et de retour NOTRE FORMULAIRE DE DEMANDE DE PRET.*Prenom:........*Nom de famille:........* Date de naissance: ........*Mobile :.........*Adresse :...........*Ville :............*Code postal :.....*Pays :..........* Tel: ..........* Montant du pret Needed ..........* Duree du pret: .........* But du pret: ..........* Avez-vous demande un pret avant: (Oui) (Non)* Profession: ..........Votre satisfaction et la reussite financiere est notre objectif et nous esperons entendrede toi.Meilleures salutations
        1. S
          Apr 23, 2015 at 11:17 am
          Third cl article by another corporate lackey pretending not to understand the implications of no net neutrality scenario. He conveniently ignored net neutrality laws in an and more importantly in developing countries like Brazil and Chile. We will fight these attempts to establish corporate control of the internet.
          1. D
            Dorene Zeller
            Jun 18, 2015 at 7:03 am
            MY TESTIMONY FROM A LEGITIMATE MONEY LENDER My name is Dorene Zeller,I am a Citizen Of United State.Have you been looking for a loan?Do you need an urgent personal or business loan?contact Dennis Hopkins Finance Home he help me with a loan of $300.000 some days ago after been scammed of $2500 from a woman claiming to been a loan lender but i thank God today that i got my loan worth $300.000.Feel free to contact the company for a genuine financial service. Email: or Tel: USA 12404374240 Tel:UK 447509546091.He is a trust worthy man.
            1. J
              Jerry Scott
              May 18, 2015 at 1:33 pm
              o Am Mr Jerry Scott, Legitimate and reliable loan lender.I give out loans on a clear and understandable terms and conditions at 3% interest rate. From $8000 to $7000000 USD, Euro And Pounds Only. I give out Business Loans, Personal Loans, Student Loans,Car Loans And Loans To Pay Off Bills. If you need a loan what you have to do is for you to contact me directly immediately now at: God Bless You. Regards, Mr Jerry Scott. Email: Note: that all mail must be sent to:
              1. P
                Apr 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm
                "Already in the US, Comcast and Netflix have entered into a commercial arrangement" Errr.. Not right! FCC has stopped the move by Comcast which threatened Net Neutrality and Netflix has been saved. Please check facts before publishing.
                1. N
                  Apr 24, 2015 at 10:34 am
                  The Airtel zero ,what's wrong with it .for some business people's profit forcing down Airtel and Indian people.... I support Airtel. net neutrality and Airtel zero ,Facebook internet has saperate concept ....
                  1. S
                    Apr 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm
                    Well, in the guise of making the internet widely available, large companies and ISP's are pushing only their prescribed content widely available. If internet has to reach millions of Indians who have yet to receive it, they should recieve it in entireity with their choice to access what they want and not what you want ro specifically "sell" them. Free access is a misnomer. The companies who will paying ISPs through their nose will defintely recover the money from the consumers in one way or the other. What it will prevent though, is for any compeion to the eastablished players giving them a monopoly. People are not naive to see through your designs.
                    1. Wasim Rahman
                      Jun 18, 2015 at 5:50 pm
                      Worst article ever. Should ban this author to publish any more article. He is lobbying for the telecom corporate giant.
                      1. Load More Comments

                      Go to Top