Debate, Don't Spread Falsehood: Airtel On Net Neutrality

20/04/2015 9:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
A shopkeeper adjusts an Airtel board outside his shop in Calcutta, India, Wednesday, April 28, 2010. Bharti Airtel, India's largest mobile phone company, suffered lower profits in the January-March quarter as a fierce price war cut into earnings despite growth in subscribers. Net profit fell 8 percent to 20.6 billion rupees ($461.1 million) from the same quarter last year, while revenue grew 2 percent to 100.6 billion rupees ($2.3 billion), the company said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

NEW DELHI — Finding itself at the receiving end of the Net-neutrality campaign, telecom giant Bharti Airtel said "falsehood" is being spread in the name of a debate on keeping Internet equally accessible for all.

Bharti Airtel, which has over 22 crore mobile subscribers, has already reached out to its customers and employees through e-mails and social media to present its case on the Net neutrality issue.

There has been a huge uproar on different social media platforms against the telecom operator's 'Airtel Zero' plan, as also against Facebook's platform among others.

"We are totally in favour of having debate, but a debate and spreading falsehood are not the same thing. I can disagree with you but we should not lie about you. We thought clearest way of countering myth was laying out of our four pledges on Net neutrality in public domain, making sure that everyone was aware about our position," Airtel Consumer Business Director Srinivasan Gopalan told in an interview.

Airtel has been at the centre of this whole debate after the launch of 'Zero plan' early this month. Under the scheme, Airtel customers will get free access to mobile applications available through Airtel Zero application. Such applications will be required to pay some fees to Airtel for coming on to Airtel Zero platform.

"Some sections have twisted the debate. We have reiterated comment on Net neutrality by reaching out to our customers, employees through email and social media," Gopalan said.

The social media campaign of the company says that it "will do what it takes to help bring every Indian online, rich or poor; no blocking, no fast lanes, never done it, never will; enable all developers, big or small, on an equal basis and the dream of digital India is our dream too". Internet activists are of the view that Airtel Zero is violating the principle of Net neutrality and has a discriminatory approach.

"It is marketing choice that developer is using. As far as discrimination is concerned if you take that logic forward then any form of marketing is discrimination. There are paid searches on the Internet too. Airtel Zero is completely non-discriminatory platform. Anybody can sign for big or small by paying same tariff," Gopalan said. He said that people construing the debate are "missing entire big picture of digital India, connecting billion people who are unconnected. We don't see any conflict in two goals at all of being pro-Net neutrality and pro-digital inclusion. In our view the two goals have to go hand in hand".

On TRAI getting a huge number of reactions on Net neutrality, he said that major response in favour of Net neutrality is a good thing.

Gopalan said, "This (debate) is not about telecom company versus social media. We are happy to work with OTT (over-the- top players like WhatsApp, Skype etc). We are very supportive of OTT ecosystem. We work very closely with social media."

He said the company has written to its employees but only to explain its stand and not to force views on them.

Here's the text of the email that Airtel sent to its customers and employees this weekend.

Dear Customer

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Gopal Vittal


Bharti Airtel Ltd.

India & South Asia

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