Industry body talks of negative returns on investment and debate on net neutrality
GN Bureau | April 20, 2015
While the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has pledged its support for an open internet in India, telecom giant Bharti Airtel has an email to customers defends its scheme Airtel Zero and talks of commitment to net neutrality.
There has been a huge uproar on different social media platforms against Airtel Zero plan, as also against Facebook's internet.org platform among others.
READ: All that you need to know about Net Neutrality
In a statement released on Sunday, the COAI says that it believes "that consumers should decide what to do online." It added: "Our job is to enable consumers to benefit from that freedom. We offer choice and do not block or provide any preferential access to any website or app."
The COAI is telecom industry body and its members include Airtel, Aircel, Idea Cellular, Reliance, Uninor, Vodafone, Videocon Telecom, Google, and Facebook. Its statement thus has to be taken with a pich of salt. The COAI reaffirmed its support for ‘net neutrality’ and also made a strong pitch for ‘net equality’.
It urged all stakeholders in net neutrality to have a comprehensive and informed debate on the subject. “An important and complex subject such as this, which is still being debated in many countries, which has taken years to conclude in many other countries and which is the subject of litigation in some, should not be left to the opinion of a few,” the association said.
However, it also made a strong pitch for ‘net equality’ that will enable access to the Internet for a billion Indians as part of the government’s Digital India vision. “We support an open Internet and believe that consumers, should decide what to do online. Our job is to enable consumers to benefit from that freedom. We offer choice and do not block or provide any preferential access to any website or app,” it added.
COAI said its members are fully committed to investing in digital India and need an enabling environment that promotes the growth of the entire Internet ecosystem. “Without infrastructure and investment, there will be no Internet access. Operators have invested billions of dollars in license fees, spectrum fees and network roll-outs. Yet the Industry still makes negative return on the capital employed,” it said.
The association stressed on the need to ensure that same rules apply to same services to get Internet access. “We believe that our role is to enable all services to reach customers across the country. One of the key factors to enable this is that same rules must apply to the same type of services, including Mobile and IP Voice services,” it added. There is a need to ensure customers have the freedom to choose how they want to access the Internet. A customer should be free to choose the device, technology and access platform – paid or subsidised as long as the Internet is always open in terms of access in a non-discriminatory manner, it said.
Meanwhile, Gopal Vittal, MD & CEO of Bharti Airtel, India and South Asia in an email to customers defends Airtel Zero and commitment to net neutrality. Bharti Airtel has over 22 crore mobile subscribers.
Below is the full text of Vittal’s email:
Over the last few days you may have seen a lot of conversation on our toll free platform Airtel Zero. It has been painted as a move that violates net neutrality and we have been very concerned at the incorrect information that has been carried by some quarters in the media as well as in social media. I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air and reiterate that we are completely committed to net neutrality. Let me clarify.
1. Our vision is to have every Indian on the internet. There are millions of Indians who think that the internet is expensive and do not know what it can do for them. We believe that every Indian has the right to be on the internet. We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the internet they will join the digital revolution.
2. Airtel Zero is a technology platform that connects application providers to their customers for free. The platform allows any content or application provider to enroll on it so that their customers can visit these sites for free. Instead of charging customers we charge the providers who choose to get on to the platform.
3. Our platform is open to all application developers, content providers and internet sites on an equal basis. The same rate card is offered to all these providers on a totally non discriminatory basis.
4. There is no difference between this and toll free voice such as 1-800. When a company selling an insurance product enrols into the toll free voice platform, customers who call the number are not charged but when they call a normal number they are charged. Calls are not blocked or given preferential treatment else our whole business would be jeopardized. Toll free voice helps the business owner engage with their customer. At the same time it provides the customer the benefit of reaching the business for free. Toll free voice is not a product or a tariff plan, it is merely a technology platform. We are simply taking the same concept of toll free voice to the world of data. As a result it is for the application developer and their customer to decide how data charges will be paid for. If the application developer is on the platform they pay for the data and their customer does not. If the developer is not on the platform the customer pays for data as they do now. Companies are free to choose whether they want to be on the platform or not. This does not change access to the content in any way whatsoever. Customers are free to choose which web site they want to visit, whether it is toll free or not. If they visit a toll free site they are not charged for data. If they visit any other site normal data charges apply.
5. Finally every web site, content or application will always be given the same treatment on our network whether they are on the toll free platform or not. As a company we do not ever block, throttle or provide any differential speeds to any web site. We have never done it and will never do it. We believe customers are the reason we are in business. As a result we will always do what is right for our customers.
There has been a deliberate effort by some quarters to confuse people that we will offer differential speeds or differential access for different sites. This is untrue. After all we earn revenues from data. If there are more customers who are on the Internet the better it is for our business. Our revenues are not dependent on which sites they visit because we charge on the basis of consumption of mega bytes not which site they visited.
In sum our platform is a technology platform and is open to all application developers and their customers. Our platform only provides a choice of how the data that is consumed is paid for by any of the two - the application provider or their customer. Whether any application provider enrolls on the platform or not is entirely their choice. All we have is a technology. We do not have a product or tariff plan that we have launched. We simply have a platform. And every application developer and their customer is free to choose in an entirely neutral way what they want to do.
In conclusion, we stand fully committed to net neutrality to ensure the goals of the Prime Minister's vision of digital India are met.
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