Airtel, a member of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has launched a new B2B platform named Airtel Zero which is called to be the latest anti-net neutrality programme of the Telecom Service Provider. The plan gives a platform for the app developers and over-the-top (OTT) content providers to make their application or services free for the consumer, by buying data themselves from the telecom companies. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.
Another plan by Airtel through which they planned to charge higher tariff for the Voice-over internet (VoIP) telephony. The company had to withdraw this plan due to criticism on social media. By this, the topic of net neutrality came in limelight in the country. COAI, which was joined by Facebook and Google, came up lobbying with the government on the passing of regulations on net neutrality. The Department of Telecom has established a six-member committee to “examine pursuit of net neutrality from public policy objective, its advantages and limitations”. A study of the economic impact on the telecom sector by the unregulated OTT services has to be done by the committee. A Consultation Paper on the same had been made public by the committee with 20 questions to be deliberated upon by the public.
The COAI wishes to implement an internet regime by which consumers would be made to pay the costs of the every service or websites they want to go through on the network over the base price which is charged as of now. This would make the internet network a kind of A-la-carte menu system by which the consumers will have to pay for everything they like to visit, thus creating the best free resource for the new start-ups a dream to look upon. Today, every start-up or for that matter, an established player too relies upon the large and pervasive internet network to promote its business. The Airtel Zero plan gives an edge to established players in the market who have the capital to buy data for their consumers unlike the start-ups. In the interview given by an Airtel official to Medianama, she commented that the new plan is non-discriminatory to all the entities who want to approach the company to buy data for making the app free for the customers. Flipkart, a well-funded marketplace venture which had linked up with Airtel over this plan, but, would start-up had been able to do so? Indeed not until it has some venture capitalists backing it up. The same had backed out of the plan due to raising hatred of the anti-net neutrality plans by the telecom operator. Also, NDTV and Cleartrip.com have also backed out from the Internet.org services, showing their support for net neutrality.
The communication app based developers have been a major worry for the telecom companies. With low priced range smartphones coming up in the electronic market users now tend to use these applications to communicate more than the conventional phones calls or text messages. The telecos’ arguments relies on this very point that so much of the financial outflows take place to establish the internet network but the OTT service providers, without any material expenses earn over their network. They also contend that the VoIP apps are affecting telecom service providers (TSPs) to a great extent and thus, should be allowed to charge them. Applications like Viber and Skype which allow free “on-net calls” have mostly affected the revenue of the TSPs of international calls and to some extent national calls too. Adding to this, WhatsApp which is the most used app in India, has also launched its voice call feature recently. Also, by improved coding and better infrastructure provided, many developers have been successful in providing Full-HD voice quality over the calls. On the other hand, the messaging service is the most affected area of revenue for the telecom companies. Messaging services by these are the most downloaded and used over the TSP’s network. Regulations a couple of years before limiting the number of messages that can be send through a SIM played an important role in increasing usage of usage of such applications.
On the other hand, telecos do generate their revenue through the usage of internet data by the consumers which comes out of usage of these applications. There is an evident increase in use by the consumers because of the fast and convenient services available through the smartphones. The percentage of the users that use VoIP services in the country is though very less in the country being the tariff of the conventional calls is very cheap. Also, the network strength in every city of the country does not support quality voice calls, resulting in users relying upon conventional calls more.
In United States of America, where there exists a large smartphone network, attempts have been made to ensure net neutrality in some aspects. The Congress tried to pass some Bills containing net neutrality provisions but it failed every time. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had issued Open Internet Order in 2010 on the broad principles of Transparency, No blocking and No unreasonable discrimination. While in Germany, the Deutche Telekom (DTAG) lost a case in court covering their intentions to throttle data speeds above a certain volume.
Concluding, if the DoT and TRAI issue orders validating the activities of the telecom operators, it would be at the first sight arbitrary on behalf of these authorities. In India, where internet access to the consumers is still growing and the SMEs who are coming up with the idea of growing using internet as a service will be affected. In the rural part of the country, internet as not entered in the lifestyles of the people as it has done in the urban part of the country, thus, it would be unfair and violating of the rights of the individuals. The telecom giants would not let a penny that they can claim to go away, and by this, it would be ensured that they make a huge increase in their revenue. The Paper which has been released by the regulatory authority has also been alleged by many of having a corporate bias behind it with providing with the arguments in their favour. On the other hand many campaigns have been started in favour of net neutrality promoting the websites such as www.netneutrality.in. Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of Internet.org also seems to be anti-neutrality practice but its vision of the same has been very different, i.e. of providing with free services in rural areas and not of providing any fast lanes to companies.