Last week, Airtel — our sweet market giant of all things telecom — made headlines after it updated the fine print of its terms and conditions page.
“All Internet/data packs or plans (through which customer can avail discounted rate) shall only be valid for internet browsing and will exclude VoIP (Both incoming/Outgoing). VoIP over data connectivity would be charged at standard data rates of 4p / 10 KB (3G service) and 10p / 10 KB (2G service).”
Simply put, this meant that if you have an Airtel 3G or 2G data plan and use apps like Viber, Skype or any other app that uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP) — voice data that is sent across the internet — then you would be charged separately, in addition to your data plan.
The VoIP pack would have cost prepaid Airtel users Rs 75 for 75MB of data for 28 days. This would have made the VoIP calls almost 300% more expensive.
But as of Monday, Bharti Airtel announced that it will not be rolling out special data packs for VoIP calls after it received some serious whiplash on the internet for its statement explaining the revision of terms.
Airtel claimed that the current VoIP model is not sustainable and hence the need for additional data packs: “Our voice services that are enjoyed by every one of our customers provides us the capacity to continuously invest in and upgrade our networks on an ongoing basis. We, therefore, believe that VoIP services in their current form are not tenable for us as a business. As a result we will charge separately for VoIP services.”
The decision to halt the launch of VoIP packs comes after the news that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) will issue a consultation paper on the issue. In a statement, Bharti Airtel said, “We have no doubt that as a result of the consultation process a balanced outcome would emerge that would not only protect the interests of all stakeholders and viability of this important sector but would also encourage much needed investments in spectrum and roll out of data networks to fulfil the objective of digital India.”
We can, thus, safely concur that Airtel has not had a change of heart but has merely put its plan to launch VoIP packs on hold. If and when Airtel does so, it could mean other telecom companies launching separate data packs for specific apps and not just services. So, you might have to pay separately, and more, for a WhatsApp pack, a Hike pack or even a YouTube pack.
To put things in perspective, a paper from the Cellular Operators Association of India lists what Telecom operators like to call OTT (over-the-top) services. These OTTs eat into telecom operators’ revenues and hence they can charge separately for these services stating the same reasons as the VoIP separation. Here’s what the list includes:
This is a broad list. But it does tell us that telecom operators can (do) track what we are using our mobile internet for. And that this allows them to decide on the services for which they want to charge us separately.
So, effectively, they can monitor your net usage, and filter and adjust their pricing to make some OTT services less attractive, either by charging more for rival services or making their services cheaper.
According to Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama, this will disadvantage small start-ups who can’t afford to be highlighted by telecom companies. The internet is already beginning to favour certain players. Take, for example, Google listings for which companies pay to get featured on Google search.
Discrimination at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level will only change the very dynamics of the internet, seen to be the most democratic, level-playing field.
But if there’s one good that has come out of all of this, it is the start of a necessary debate on Internet freedom. Airtel’s move has widened interests and discussions on the concept of net neutrality, which has been at the centre of debates on internet freedom in countries like the US. Recently, US President Obama made a bid for a free and open internet, urging that all data be treated the same.
So much so that he is even thinking of amending their Telecommunications Act.
The three core principles of net neutrality are
Airtel’s decision to separately charge for VoIP would have violated the third principle. The use of VoIP may not match video streaming. But charging extra for streaming music or watching videos could very well be the next service we are asked to pay for over and above the price we pay to access the internet in the first place. Telecom operators are meant to provide us access to the internet, after that they shouldn’t have a say on how we consume data.
The principles of net neutrality state that no specific application or IP address can be given a higher or lower priority in terms of connection quality/speed or access. The idea of net neutrality is that a data connection does not determine what content people consume. But in today’s world where business has gone digital and competition keeps getting harder, telecoms find themselves doing what they always have been doing — business.
Rahul Khullar, chief of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has pointed out that there are no laws that enforce net neutrality in the country. Though TRAI has promoted the cause, it doesn’t enforce it. Even the Information Technology Act 2000 does not prohibit companies from moulding their service to fit their business interests. The government has promised a “Structured Response” to Airtel’s pricing situation but given that there are no laws restricting them from charging for services, we can assume that the centre’s response will mirror the response of Airtel and TRAI.
The internet has always been a platform for equal opportunity. I can post my views here; you can comment. In fact, please do comment because we need discourse on this topic.
Preserving internet freedom in today’s world may increasingly become a hard task, but if Airtel changing track is proof of anything, netizens can certainly affect the space they are in.