by TM Arun Kumar

A Rebuttal to Airtel’s Defence of Airtel Zero

Apr 09, 20155 mins
4GBroadbandEnterprise Applications

Does Airtel understand the concept of Net Neutrality? If it did, it probably won't be defending Airtel Zero.

After Airtel came up with Airtel Zero a couple of days ago, it has received a lot of flak from people on the grounds that it breaches the principles of net neutrality. In defence of Airtel Zero, Airtel has issued a note to “set the records straight and to look at some key facts.” Alas, the note raises more questions than it answers. Here is my rebuttal to Airtel’s defence of Airtel Zero.

Below is Airtel’s statement defending Airtel Zero (Italics are my rebuttal to some of the statements made in the note)

It’s only been a couple of days since the launch of Airtel Zero, an innovative and open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications “free of cost”, and we are seeing a big and somewhat unrelated debate on net neutrality with regards to the product.

The debate about net neutrality is very much related. Since Airtel Zero allows free of cost access to only some apps and not all apps, its clearly violating the concepts of net neutrality. So, it is very much a related debate.

While opinions from critics of the product are very welcome, it is pertinent that we set the record straight and look at some key facts relating to Airtel Zero and the benefits it brings to customers and the industry alike.

First and most important point: Airtel Zero is “free” for all our consumers and open to all marketers. Yes, open to all – big or small.

Does “open” to all marketers mean “free” for all marketers. Obviously not. Airtel is going to be charging the marketers to be a part of the Airtel Zero package. So, if an app developer is unable to pay up, she/he will be priced out of the market. As they say, there is nothing called a free lunch. Somebody’s got to pay for it. In this case, the app developers pay.

In fact, since we announced Airtel Zero on April 6, over 150 start-ups – with majority being small start-ups – have contacted to enquire about the product. For the record, 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.

Can we know the names of some of these startups who have said that it’s a great platform? And why haven’t they announced their support for this publicly as yet? And far from reducing their marketing expenses, this will only add to their marketing costs. Its clever to compare bandwidth costs with marketing costs, but its an apple to oranges comparison.

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?

This is a dumb argument at best. Net neutrality is about equal access to all applications/services on the Internet and not about the device with which Internet is being accessed.

There are multiple mobile technologies – 2G, 3G, 4G – to access internet. Should all speed and pricing be the same in the garb of Net Neutrality?

An illogical argument again. Please forgive them for they do not know what they are saying.

Some customers pay cheaper data rates based on volume purchased. Does Net Neutrality imply that everyone must pay the same rate irrespective of usage?

No. It doesn’t imply that. There is a difference between “cheaper data rates based on volume consumed” and “making data usage from certain apps not billable or free.”

In the end, the debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly – 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 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.

Classic shoot the messenger approach, questioning her/his credentials and casting aspersions on their motive. When Airtel says that a large number of people are not clear on what Net Neutrality is all about, does it include itself in that list? If it doesn’t include itself, I think it should.

Given the facts above, what better way to contribute to the Digital India vision of the Government of India. 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’.

Airtel’s note starts off with the defence that Airtel Zero doesn’t violate net neutrality and now ends with “Digital India” and “Make in India.” Why go away from the main point of discussion? Just because Airtel wants to contribute to “Digital India” and “Make in India” doesn’t mean that it has a license to violate net neutrality. Please don’t take your consumers for fools.