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Bharti Airtel Fuels Net Neutrality Fire In India With Free Access To Partner Apps

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The net neutrality debate has been stirred up in India once again today after details of a new program from operator Bharti Airtel became public. Medianama broke news of Airtel Zero, a soon-to-launch initiative that will grant consumers free access to services run by developers who pay the operator for the privilege.

Medianama reports that Flipkart, the e-commerce service valued at more than $11 billion, will be among the launch partners once the Airtel Zero platform is official. Flipkart declined to comment on that claim.

Airtel Zero takes cues from Facebook’s Internet.org service, which recently arrived in India and lets users access and use a range of websites and internet services for free. In the case of Internet.org, Facebook brokered deals with operators to compensate them for ‘giving away’ their data services — Bharti Airtel is flipping the concept to let developers pay the cost of their visitors’ traffic.

[Correction: Facebook does not compensate operators to give away their services. Instead, operators benefit from partnering with Internet.org because its apps give people a taste of the Internet, and then people who want access to the rest of the web pay the network operators.]

A Marketing Opportunity For Developers

Srini Gopalan, director of consumer business at Bharti Airtel, positioned the program as a marketing opportunity in an interview with TechCrunch. In addition to zero rating access, partner websites and services will be promoted by Bharti Airtel through a range of channels, he explained. That includes SMS to subscribers, its website and One Touch Internet portal.

“The initiative is an open non-discriminatory platform: a win-win for developers,” Gopalan said, explaining that the costs will be fixed for partners of all sizes. “Our goal is to help developers reduce their cash burn, it is not a walled garden.”

Gopalan claimed early trials showed the program can reduce marketing costs for developers by two-thirds, and raise awareness of services to new, or first-time, internet users.

“A small fraction of our [220 million] customers actually use the internet,” he said. “This [program] is about driving digital inclusion… [we want to make] a vast range of apps available for our customers.”

With WhatsApp alone outgrowing SMS volume worldwide, and the growth of other messaging apps raising questions over the saturation of voice revenue, data remains an important channel for operators, many of whom are just scratching the service. India — like other parts of Asia — is predominantly a pre-paid market, and smartphone adoption (while growing) remains nascent. Bharti Airtel will see this program as a chance to accelerate internet adoption/engagement, and, of course, increase revenues.

But, since Gopalan declined to decline pricing for Airtel Zero, we’re not able to make a comparison with the average revenue per user (ARPU) that the operator sees from regular internet users.

But… Net Neutrality

Business objectives aside, the major issue here is net neutrality — the hugely important concept that all internet traffic should be treated equally.

That definition is net neutrality at its most basic level, but it is more than just the negative aspects, such as prioritizing certain traffic and throttling others.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, the man who created the internet itself, recently argued that “positive discrimination” is a major problem because of the power it affords ISPs and operators:

In effect, they can become gatekeepers — able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day.

Here, under Berners Lee’s definition, Artel Zero violates net neutrality.

While he declined to specifically comment on net neutrality, Bharti Airtel’s Gopalan said Airtel Zero is an extension of toll-free calling. He denied concerns that the program would develop into a ‘two lane’ system that prioritized certain traffic on the Bharti Airtel network.

Positive net neutrality is increasing common in Asia and emerging markets, where bundled deals are used by operators to coax new and early internet users into buying data plans and embracing the mobile web.

That practice has become common, despite criticism, but programs like Airtel Zero could take things to the next level if adopted by others. (Bharti Airtel has business in Africa but said the “focus” of its program is only India at this point.)

The Medianama report is well timed. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a paper on net neutrality last week. The regulator is seeking public opinion on 20 questions related to internet regulation — the deadline for responses is April 24.

If you live in India and (still) need more motivation to turn in your thoughts, Bharti Airtel just supplied it.

Featured Image: PureSolution/Shutterstock