New Delhi : The telecom regulator is of the view that the controversial Airtel Zero plan prima facie violates the principle of net neutrality, disputing the contention by the country’s largest telco that the scheme is consistent with the concept of an open internet.
“From the looks of it, Airtel Zero and many other plans including Facebook’s Internet.org tie-up with Reliance Communications and the free WhatsApp, Facebook offers by other telcos seem to violate net neutrality,” said a senior TRAI official.
Airtel has written to TRAI, describing its Airtel Zero scheme as a plain, open platform for app makers to provide toll-free data services, and one that doesn’t discriminate against anyone, said people familiar with the development.
Bharti Airtel has consistently maintained that its plan doesn’t violate the concept of net neutrality, which guarantees consumers equal and non-discriminatory access to all data, apps and services on the internet.
The regulator, however, doesn’t agree with Airtel and is scrutinizing the plan and all similar schemes, including Facebook’s Internet.org tie-up with Reliance Communications, which on the face of it violates the concept of an open internet. On Wednesday, travel site Cleartrip withdrew from Internet.org over net neutrality concerns.
Most telcos such as Idea Cellular, Uninor and Tata Teleservices also have plans offering Facebook or WhatsApp at nominal charges, if not for free. There are no official guidelines on net neutrality in India. Both the government and the regulator are examining the broader issue and will take a final view in the coming months.
Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has openly backed a free internet and said consumers should be able to access the Net in a non-discriminatory manner.
But the TRAI official said until the regulator or the government put rules in place, telecom operators can continue introducing plans such as these. “You will need the force of law to draw lines on what is permissible and what is not. Together, the regulator and the government will have to make it clear,” the official said.
The debate over net neutrality boiled over when Airtel recently launched its Airtel Zero plan that it positioned as an open marketing platform for app makers to provide their apps to users for free. Critics pointed out that the companies would pay telcos for providing apps free to customers. This, in turn, put app makers who don’t enter into tie-ups with telcos at a disadvantage as it discouraged customers from accessing these apps, hence violating the principle of net neutrality.
On Tuesday, e-commerce giant Flipkart said it had called off negotiations with Airtel to join the Airtel Zero platform, citing its support for net neutrality, after a severe consumer backlash both online and on social media. On Wednesday, Airtel’s stock closed down 2.3% at Rs 414.60 on the Bombay Stock Exchange, underperforming the broader market.
“We are completely aware of the complex issues plaguing net neutrality and that is why we have initiated a debate on this subject through our consultation paper,” the TRAI official said.
Earlier this month, the regulator had floated the paper on whether over-the-top (OTT) services or apps delivered through the internet by telecom operators and ISPs (Internet service providers,) should be licensed or regulated. The regulator has asked stakeholders to send suggestions by April 24 while counter-arguments need to be submitted by 8th May. TRAI will subsequently publish its recommendations on the subject.
The consultation paper has seen an unprecedented response, with more than 5.08 lakh emails sent to the regulator backing a free Internet. An online petition on the change.org website has been signed by nearly 1.8 lakh in support of net neutrality.
A telecom department panel is separately examining the issue and will come out with an independent report by the second week of May, which will help formulate the government’s stand on the touchy topic.