Is Airtel Zero violating net neutrality?

Updated: April 15, 2015 12:00:43 PM

Airtel will offer free access to applications on its platform, but does that mean others will lose out?

airtel zero, airtel zero news, net neutrality india, net neutrality airtel, net neutrality news, Bharti Airtel, internet, internet airtelAirtel Zero is “free” for all our consumers and open to all marketers—big or small. Since we announced Airtel Zero on April 6, over 150 start-ups—majority being small start-ups—have contacted to inquire about the product. Reuters

Srini Gopal: Airtel Zero is free for each and every customer and offers the same speed to all. Further, it charges the same amount to each company for data without any discrimination.

It’s been a few days since the launch of Airtel Zero, an open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications “free of cost”. We are seeing a big and somewhat unrelated debate on net neutrality with regards to the product. While opinions from critics of the product are welcome, it is pertinent that we look at some key facts relating to Airtel Zero and the benefits it brings to customers and industry alike.

First and most important, Airtel Zero is “free” for all our consumers and open to all marketers—big or small. Since we announced Airtel Zero on April 6, over 150 start-ups—majority being small start-ups—have contacted to inquire about the product. Every one of them told us what a great platform we will be providing to them and, for a change, they will have an “equal opportunity” to run with the big boys. On an average, Airtel Zero will help reduce their marketing costs by almost three quarters. Not bad, I would say, though some may still feel otherwise. There is a high level of misinformation around the product, which is not surprising since the very concept of net neutrality is a bit misunderstood. Let us bust some myths regarding Airtel Zero.

Myth: The product concept amounts to preferential access.

Reality: Not at all. Airtel Zero provides universal access and is free for all our customers. They have the choice to decide if they want to come there or not.

Myth: Large companies with big budgets will be favoured while small start-ups will lose out.

Reality: No. On the contrary we have had many “small” start-ups calling us and congratulating us for building this platform which offers them a great opportunity to market products at low costs. Over 150 companies are in touch with us and want to sign up.

Myth: “Smaller” start-ups will not be able to afford to pay for the data.

Reality: Why not? Today, when a consumer downloads a new app and uses it for a day, the total data consumed is about 20-30 MB. Assuming R1/MB of free data, this works out to R20 for the start-up. Instead, the average cost of marketing digitally through large media/internet companies is about R50 to 300 per download. This platform will make it cheaper for small companies to gain distribution and visibility.

Myth: Telcos will charge other companies for data used by customers. This is a way of making money.

Reality: Telcos have been working with businesses for decades to offer “toll-free” voice services, where business pays for a customer to call in. Airtel Zero is the same concept.

Myth: Airtel Zero is against net neutrality and gives advantage to those who can pay for data.

Reality: As a concept, Airtel Zero has nothing to do with net neutrality. It is free for each and every customer and offers the same speed to all. It charges the same amount to each company for data without any discrimination.

Myth: Speed to access the apps that are not on Airtel Zero will be throttled.

Reality: Completely incorrect. There is no difference in speed to access various apps, whether they are on Airtel Zero or not.

Today, some mobile devices can store 50 or more apps, others can store five and some can’t even do so. Will net neutrality imply that all devices must be standardised and offered at the same price to make the net neutral? There are multiple mobile technologies—2G, 3G, 4G—to access the internet. Should all speed and pricing be the same in the garb of net neutrality? Some customers pay cheaper data rates based on volume purchased. Does net neutrality imply that everyone must pay the same rate irrespective of usage?

The debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly—many people are still not clear what net neutrality is all about. This gives an opportunity to the so-called experts to make various as well as baseless arguments. While their point of view is important, we should have a more informed and nuanced debate without painting a picture that is based on rhetoric rather than reason.

Given these facts, what better way to contribute to the Digital India vision. Never before has an open and innovative platform like Airtel Zero been on offer that will help drive internet adoption through free usage (and companies and app developers being an equal partner in the process). It will also drive innovation in the internet and mobile app space by providing a cost-effective and non-discriminatory platform, in particular, to smaller companies. This will truly drive “Make in India, For India”.

The author is director, Consumer Business, Bharti Airtel

Nikhil Pahwa: Airtel Zero is a walled garden, where Airtel chooses what people access for free while increasing costs for everything else. Telcos want to divide the internet into limited experiences.

An electricity company doesn’t tell you which device you can plug in, which new devices you can try out, or charge you differently based on what you use. Sure there is discrimination between free and commercial use, but the internet is even freer—it is a virtual environment, which allows you to go wherever you want, see what you want to see, and do what you want. It’s what makes the internet this beautiful, free-roam, immersive space. We fight on Twitter, flirt on Woo, put food photos on Instagram, contribute to Wikipedia, debate and troll on random message boards like Pagalguy and IndiaMike. We can use global services like Meerkat and Periscope at the same time as it is launched for the rest of the world.

We do more as we discover more. Bit by bit, we discover ourselves. This azaadi is what makes it immersive. We choose, and we have control.

Airtel Zero is a walled garden created by Airtel, where it will choose what people access for free while possibly increasing costs for everything else. All Airtel and telecom operators want to—through the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)—is divide and conquer the World Wide Web, and take the ultimate meritocracy away from the user. They want to slice it into limited experiences and erect walls so that users who come online after us have a different, limited experience: they get a free internet that is muft but not mukt. They get to shop of Flipkart because it pays hafta, but not DailyObjects, because it can’t. In truth, what they will be providing won’t be “the internet”, but an Airtel menu with few services, more like a TV channel and an “Airtel Chosen Web” than the open web. What’s worse, Trai is considering licensing the internet while refusing to ensure that there is no abuse of net neutrality.

Airtel Zero divides the internet into two parts: free versus paid. Soon, every other telecom operator will follow suit. What one Airtel customer gets to use online through the Zero will be different from what a Vodafone customer might. Slicing the internet into many more pieces by creating packs so that consumers can buy, say WhatsApp usage but not Twitter, will kill the ability to free roam. It will restrict consumer choice.

Whoever buys this access will increase costs for consumers because this toll tax will get passed. They, in turn, will use Airtel Zero to kill competition.

Airtel might say that they paid a lot of money in the spectrum auctions, and have to invest in infrastructure for a roll-out; that net neutrality, which means that information highways like telecom operators should not discriminate internet content and services on the basis of cost, speed or availability, makes their business unviable. If that is the case, then did they take part in the spectrum auctions without a viable business model? Couldn’t they have opted out of the auctions like they did in March 2013? This is something their investors must take note of. Or did telecom operators make business plans which included splitting up the internet and extorting money from start-ups like they did with mobile VAS? Did they know that their attempts to lobby Trai would yield a consultation paper which MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who has been a pioneer in the telecom sector in India, recently said has a pro-industry bias? Chandrasekhar and Tathagata Satpathy have done what Trai should have: spoken up for consumers.

Telecom operators may say there is need for a level-playing field, and the internet is cannibalising their revenues. In truth, last quarter, Airtel reported stable minutes, higher revenue realisation per minute on voice, and exponential growth in mobile internet revenues. Globally, telecom operators are profiting from increasing data usage, without net neutrality being infringed.

It is important for the “Make in India” initiative that Indian start-ups are freely available to all, and build a market here and then go global.

Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal recently spoke about how they tried a hundred ideas in India, and now have ideas to choose from for the 22 countries that they are in. If telecom operators control access and pick winners in India, and not consumers, start-ups will move to freer markets. A LIRNEasia study revealed that in many countries where they get Facebook-only data packs, first-time users believe that Facebook is the internet. Walled gardens reduce choice. Does our government want to cede control of the internet to walled gardens like Facebook’s and Airtel Zero, instead of standing for an open internet built on ensuring net neutrality and user choice? I hope not.

The author is editor & publisher, MediaNama

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