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 AirtelZero, an open marketingplatform that will allow customersto access mobile applications “free of cost”. We are seeing a bigand somewhat unrelated debate on netneutrality with regards to the product. While opinions from critics of the product are welcome, it is pertinent that we lookat some key facts relating to AirtelZero and the benefits it brings to customersand industryalike.
First and mostimportant, AirtelZero is “free” for allour consumers and open to allmarketers—big or small. Since we announced AirtelZero 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 greatplatform we will be providing to them and, for a change, they will have an “equal opportunity” to run with the bigboys. On an average, AirtelZero will help reduce their marketingcosts by almost three quarters. Not bad, I would say, though some may still feel otherwise. There is a highlevel of misinformation around the product, which is not surprising since the very concept of netneutrality is a bit misunderstood. Let us bust some myths regarding AirtelZero.
Myth: The product concept amounts to preferential access.
Reality: Not at all. AirtelZero provides universalaccess and is free for allour customers. They have the choice to decide if they want to come there or not.
Myth: Large companieswith bigbudgets 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 buildingthis platform which offersthem a greatopportunity to marketproducts at lowcosts. Over 150 companiesare in touchwith 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 newapp and uses it for a day, the totaldataconsumed is about 20-30 MB. Assuming R1/MB of free data this works out to R20 for the start-up. Instead, the average costof marketingdigitally through large media/internet companiesis about R50 to 300 per download. This platform will make it cheaper for small companiesto gain distribution and visibility.
Myth: Telcos will charge other companiesfor dataused by customers. This is a way of making money.
Reality: Telcos have been workingwith businesses for decades to offer“toll-free” voiceservices, where businesspays for a customer to callin. AirtelZero is the same concept.
Myth: AirtelZero is against netneutrality and gives advantage to those who can pay for data.
Reality: As a concept, AirtelZero has nothing to do with netneutrality. It is free for each and every customer and offersthe same speed to all. It charges the same amount to each companyfor datawithout any discrimination.
Myth: Speed to access the appsthat are not on AirtelZero will be throttled.
Reality: Completely incorrect. There is no difference in speed to access various apps whether they are on AirtelZero or not.
Today, some mobiledevices can store50 or more apps others can storefive and some can’t even do so. Will netneutrality imply that alldevices must be standardised and offered at the same priceto make the netneutral? There are multiple mobiletechnologies—2G, 3G, 4G—to access the internet. Shouldallspeed and pricing be the same in the garb of netneutrality? Some customerspay cheaper datarates based on volume purchased. Does netneutrality imply that everyone must pay the same rateirrespective of usage?
The debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly—many peopleare still not clear what netneutrality is allabout. 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 shouldhave 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 DigitalIndiavision. Never before has an open and innovative platform like AirtelZero been on offerthat will help drive internetadoption through free usage (and companiesand app developersbeing an equal partner in the process. It will also drive innovation in the internetand mobileapp 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 BhartiAirtel
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 companydoesn’t tell you which device you can plug in, which newdevices you can try out, or charge you differently based on what you use. Sure there is discrimination between free and commercialuse, but the internetis even freer—it is a virtualenvironment, which allows you to go wherever you want, see what you want to see, and do what you want. It’s what makes the internetthis beautiful, free-roam, immersive space. We fight on Twitter, flirt on Woo, put foodphotos on Instagram, contribute to Wikipedia, debate and troll on random message boards like Pagalguy and IndiaMike. We can use globalservices like Meerkat and Periscope at the same timeas it is launchedfor 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 peopleaccess for free while possibly increasing costs for everything else. AllAirtel and telecom operators want to—through the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India(Trai)—is divide and conquer the WorldWide 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 onlineafter us have a different, limited experience: they geta free internetthat is muft but not mukt. They getto shopof 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 Airtelmenu 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 internetwhile refusing to ensure that there is no abuse of netneutrality.
Airtel Zero divides the internetinto two parts: free versus paid. Soon, every other telecom operatorwill follow suit. What one Airtelcustomer gets to use onlinethrough the Zero will be different from what a Vodafonecustomer might. Slicing the internetinto 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 getpassed. They, in turn, will use AirtelZero to kill competition.
Airtel might say that they paid a lot of money in the spectrum auctions, and have to invest in infrastructurefor a roll-out; that netneutrality, which means that informationhighways like telecom operators shouldnot discriminate internetcontent and serviceson the basis of cost speed or availability, makes their businessunviable. If that is the case, then did they take part in the spectrum auctions without a viable businessmodel? 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 businessplanswhich included splitting up the internetand extorting money from start-ups like they did with mobileVAS? Did they know that their attempts to lobby Trai would yield a consultation paperwhich MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who has been a pioneer in the telecom sectorin Indiarecently said has a pro-industry bias? Chandrasekhar and Tathagata Satpathy have done what Trai shouldhave: spoken up for consumers.
Telecom operators may say there is need for a level-playing field and the internetis cannibalising their revenues. In truth, last quarter, Airtelreported stable minutes, higher revenue realisation per minute on voice and exponential growth in mobileinternetrevenues. Globally, telecom operators are profiting from increasing datausage, without netneutrality being infringed.
It is important for the “Make in India” initiative that Indianstart-ups are freely availableto all and builda markethere 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 getFacebook-only datapacks, first-time users believe that Facebook is the internet. Walled gardens reduce choice. Does our governmentwant to cede control of the internetto walled gardens like Facebook’s Internet.org and AirtelZero, instead of standing for an open internetbuilt on ensuring netneutrality and user choice? I hope not.
The author is editor& publisher, MediaNama