What Airtel stands to win even if net neutrality is enforced?

Okay, so after 12 days of intense debate on all major social media sites, news channels and national newspapers finally we’ve hit the target – a million email responses have been sent to TRAI in response to that “ridiculously titled” consultation paper on Net Neutrality. And this happened in a country where 12 days ago enough people weren’t even aware of the whole concept. Thanks to news channels like CNBC Awaaz and Bloomberg TV India that organized debates on the topic and celebrities like Vishal Dadlani, Shah Rukh Khan, Parineeti Chopra and many others who encouraged their fans to join the campaign. And yeah, how can we forget that video from the guys at AIB who totally killed it!

During this whole development a lot of rage has been targeted at Bharti Airtel. While other biggies including Flipkart and Facebook also suffered from the flame of fire, it was Airtel that had to bear the most of the heat, particularly because of its Airtel Zero plan that it was going to introduce. In fact, it was actually the Airtel Zero plan that fueled the fire of Net Neutrality.

After debate started reaching its peak and more than half million emails had already been sent to TRAI, Airtel decided to put its response right before its customers. While company tried its best to position itself as a supporter of Net Neutrality with fine intentions of bringing every Indian online in its response titled #airtelpledge, the response actually fired back, thanks to the video and audio throttling history that Airtel has had associated with it. While company said in its pledge that it never blocked any website and never made any fast lanes to give preferential treatment to any content provider, SaveTheInternet coalition questioned this statement with examples of video and audio throttling that Airtel has been doing for years. This puts a big “?” on the integrity of company, as SaveTheInternet coalition said in its response that there should be measures holding Airtel accountable to its pledge in future as history doesn’t look any good!

Overall, Airtel has become the villain of whole Net Neutrality scenario. And who doesn’t want a villain to lose? Same’s true here as well. People want TRAI to enforce absolute Net Neutrality in India, which will legally thwart Airtel’s plans of launching any “Zero Rating” packs in India. If this happens, it’ll be a big win against “Greedy Airtel” in the eyes of all users who’ve mailed TRAI in the last 12 days. But wait, there’s another part of the story… and to understand that part, we need to go a little bit back into the history!

Airtel’s Real Intentions Behind Net Neutrality

I don’t know whether Airtel want’s to give preferential treatment to any content providers or not, whether it’s really interested in standing for Net Neutrality or not, but I do know one thing – Airtel DOESN’T want the data to be FREE!

Charging for data is the base of Airtel’s business model, and company wasn’t actually interested in messing it up by introducing free-to-consumer products like Airtel Zero. You can understand that yourself from the recent conversation between Airtel CEO Sunil Mittal and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his Internet.org project at Mobile World Congress,

“If you are going to make the data free, then let’s do completely philanthropic projects. Government must make spectrum free, there should be free network, but it is not happening.”

This is not an excerpt from any press release that Airtel had to issue under any kind of pressure – this is from a conversation that happened several months before when spectrum auction was going on in our country and when most people in our country didn’t even know what Net Neutrality was!

So the question is, What might’ve really caused Airtel to launch Airtel Zero?

Well, let’s look back at the same conversation between Mr. Mittal and Mr. Zuckerberg:

“I told him (Zuckerberg) that you are right that this (internet.org) expands the market. But at the end, you must understand that we (telecom operators) need to charge you (users) for something. SMSes have gone more or less, voice is going down and they (Facebook) recognize that.”

You already know the part of this – SMSes have gone down the drain and voice calling has also gone down from quite sometime. If there would’ve been no WhatsApp, the “SMS Tarriff” business of companies would’ve still been doing astoundingly well. But after WhatsApp, it seems like SMSes have become the things of past, especially among teenagers and college students who were the primary customers of those SMS packs. And to make the matters worst, WhatsApp recently introduced voice calling, which rang another “Panic bell” for all telcos including Airtel!

To make the matters worst, WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook decided to launch Internet.org in India, which will this time make data free, but with Airtel’s biggest rival Reliance Communications. So in the Boardrooms of Airtel, Executives must’ve been saying the same thing that Mr. Mittal told to Zuckerberg, but with a few extra lines actually,”

“SMSes have gone more or less, voice is going down and now DAMN this Facebook with its Internet.org that wants to make data free! If Reliance builds its brand in 6 states by offering free Internet, a big chunk of our upcoming customer base will go to Reliance!”

Internet.org Banner

You see it? That was the real problem I guess… although Airtel won’t admit it publicly. SMSes gone, voice going down, all because of one company called Facebook, and now that same company standing hand-in-hand with the rival to throw another bucket of cold water on company’s only remaining and steadily growing revenue source: Data!

Airtel had to act before it was too late. And to act, it had two options – one was to go the Reliance way and partner with Facebook’s Internet.org as it has done in Kenya. Another was to introduce something similar on its own.

In first option Facebook sets the rules of the game and benefits the most from branding that occurs because of Internet.org. Airtel might’ve experienced it already after doing the partnership in Kenya. So this time it decided to go on its own instead… the result of which was Airtel Zero. Airtel Zero also landed its first big customer – Flipkart!

And all of us know what happened after it…

Net Neutrality…Net Neutrality… Net Neutrality

Down vote Flipkart! Uninstall their app. 

Email…TRAI… Save the internet!

Fast forward to today, and a million email responses have been sent to TRAI via SaveTheInternet.in, Flipkart has pulled itself out of Airtel Zero to protect its brand and many leading companies including ClearTrip, NDTV and Times Group have decided to abandon Internet.org and support Net Neutrality instead. Looking at this strong reaction, there’re good chances that TRAI may enforce absolute Net Neutrality in India!

But do you know what Airtel will win even if Net Neutrality is enforced?

It’s a victory over Reliance, it’s biggest rival in the country!

Airtel vs. Reliance

Look, if Net Neutrality is enforced in full order, all zero rating products including Internet.org will become illegal. While Airtel will have to shut down Airtel Zero, Reliance will also have to shut down Internet.org, which will give Airtel a little bit of the “level playing field” it has actually been looking for. While the playing field will still not be “level” enough from Airtel’s perspective, still something will be better than nothing!

In short, Airtel will win and retain a lot of its subscriber base from Reliance in 6 states and no other carrier will be able to attack it with any similar products anytime soon. Not Bad, Airtel!

But hey, that’s exactly the way it should be! Instead of publicizing only Airtel as a villain, we should understand that no carrier should have the right of violating Net Neutrality. As Odisha’s CM Naveen Patnaik said perfectly in his letter to PM Modi,

“While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. You cannot force a person to use a certain mobile application because the telecom company believes that it should be doing so.”

That’s the core of Net Neutrality. Everyone should’ve freedom, everyone should’ve equal access and everyone should’ve equal opportunities. All of us should fight for Net Neutrality with these values in mind instead of targeting any particular telecom player. Net Neutrality has been violated in our country from several years and all telcos have done that, but none other than Airtel suffered from the flame.

So give some breathing room to Airtel now, and if you didn’t send your email yet to TRAI, do that now by visiting SaveTheInternet.in because today’s the last day to mail your responses!

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