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Net neutrality backlash forces Airtel to clarify stand on Airtel Zero

MUMBAI: Earlier this week, telecom operator Bharti Airtel launched Airtel Zero, an open marketing platform that allows customers to access certain mobile applications at zero data charges.

In other words, users get free access to these apps only via Airtel’s mobile data network.

The company said that similar to the concept of toll-free voice calling, Airtel Zero aims to allow big marketers and small-time application developers to make parts of or entire mobile apps free for customers, thus reviving interest of dormant customers, attracting new potential users, and increasing retention.

However, the company’s strategy has received severe criticism from netizens who claimed that the platform violates the principles of net neutrality.

The negative publicity picked up so much that Airtel had to come out with an explanation. The company today said that while it has only been a couple of days since the launch of Airtel Zero, it is seeing a ‘big and somewhat unrelated debate’ on net neutrality with regard to the product.

It said that while opinions from critics of the product are welcome, it is pertinent for the company to set the record straight and look at some key facts concerning Airtel Zero and the benefits it brings to customers and the industry alike.

The telecom giant said that the most important part is that Airtel Zero is free for all its consumers and open to all marketers, irrespective of their size.

It also claimed that since the announcement on 6 April, over 150 start-ups—most of them being small ones—have enquired about the product. “On average, Airtel Zero will help reduce their marketing costs by almost three quarters,” Bharti Airtel India director consumer business Srini Gopalan said.

“There is also a high level of misinformation surrounding the product, which is not surprising since the very concept of net neutrality is a bit misunderstood,” he added.

With respect to the charge that Airtel Zero is against net neutrality and gives advantage to those who can pay for data, Gopalan answered, “As a concept, Airtel Zero has nothing to do with net neutrality. It is free for every customer, and offers the same speed to all. It charges the same amount to each company for data without any discrimination.”

Rubbishing the concern that speed to access the apps that are not on Airtel Zero will be throttled, Gopalan said, “There is no difference in speed to access various apps, whether they are on Airtel Zero or not.”

Stating that some mobile devices can store 50 or more apps, while others can store only five and fewer, he asked if net neutrality means all devices must be standardised and offered at the same price to make the internet 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?” he added.

He added that a large number of people are still not clear on what net neutrality is all about. “This gives an opportunity to the so-called experts to make 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.”

He claimed that never before has an open and innovative platform like Airtel Zero been on offer that will help drive internet adoption through free usage. “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’,” he added.

A list of myths and realities from Airtel:

Myth Reality
The product concept amounts to preferential access Not at all. Airtel Zero provides universal access and is free for all our customers. Customers have the choice to decide whether they want to come there or not.
Large companies with big budgets will be favoured and smaller start-ups will lose out
  1. On the contrary we have had lots of ‘small’ start-ups calling us and congratulating us for building this platform, which offers them a great opportunity to market their products at very low costs. Over 150 companies are already in touch with us and want to sign up.
‘Smaller’ Start-ups will not be able to afford to pay for the data charges  Why not? Today, when a consumer downloads a new app and uses it for a day, the total amount of data consumed is roughly about 20-30 MB. Assuming a price of INR 1/MB of free data, this will translate to INR 20 for the start-up. Compared to this, the average cost of marketing digitally through large media/ internet companies is about INR 50 to 300 per download. So, this platform will actually make it cheaper for small companies to gain distribution as well as visibility.
Telecom companies will charge other companies for data used by customers. This is a way of making money. Telecom companies have been working with businesses for decades to offer ‘Toll-Free’ voice services, wherein, a business pays to a customer to call in. Airtel Zero is the same concept.
Airtel Zero is against Net Neutrality and gives advantage to those who can pay for data. 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.
Speed to access the apps that are not on Airtel Zero will be throttled Completely incorrect. There is no difference in speed to access various apps, whether they are on Airtel Zero or not.