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The Battle for Net Neutrality

As telecom operators struggle to bump up revenue, for users, it's a fight to maintain a 'free and fair' Internet. For now, the activists are winning -- but this war could reach the courts.

By Prasanto K. Roy
  • Published 15.04.15

I don’t often get my news from overheard chatter, but the conversation on a crowded Delhi Metro train, among a group of students last December, was agitated. Airtel, the biggest brother of Indian telecom, was going to “charge extra for Internet voice calls”.

I went online when the train went overground, and yes, Twitter was afire. Airtel was planning special voice-over-Internet packs. The plan could add 50 paise a minute to the cost of a Skype or other Internet call.

Three things happened soon afterward. India’s telecom regulator, TRAI, issued a consultation paper on licensing of such “over the top’’ (OTT) services as Skype (see box). Airtel hurriedly dropped its plans to charge extra for Internet calls. And the term “Net neutrality” got so popular that on Metro rides in March alone, I overheard that term three times in animated arguments.

By April, those animated arguments had turned into a thunderstorm online.

Net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, is a bit like “equality for women” — the term wasn’t needed while equality existed. The Internet was free and fair, and you paid your operator data charges to access it. Those per-megabyte charges didn’t vary by website or services, or the apps you used.

Then the deals happened. Reliance Communications signed up with in February to give free access to 38 sites, including Facebook, Bing and Cleartrip, with zero data charges (you’d have to pay to access other sites, like Google or MakeMyTrip). And then, in April, Airtel launched Zero.

Zero Takers for Zero Rating

Zero is Airtel’s platform for specific free apps, with zero data and usage charges. This is usually called zero-rating, or sponsored data, where the cost of data (and of exclusivity) is paid for by the app vendor.

Airtel went squarely into the cross-hairs of Net neutrality advocates, along with its first Zero partner, Flipkart. Even after founder Sachin Bansal said he was “for Net neutrality”, users started “downrating” the Flipkart app on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store — giving it a one-star rating, the lowest possible.

Under severe attack online, on April 14 Flipkart announced that it was withdrawing its app from the Airtel Zero platform.

So who’s right? On the face of it, this isn’t a case of an operator charging extra for a Skype call, but actually giving a free download and free data usage for specific apps. Bansal pointed out that Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader also bundles zero-rated data: you get lifetime free data to buy books with, without needing a cellular subscription.

Zero-rating looks good at first. A user gets free access to, say, Flipkart, with no data charges. She begins to use it more and more. Competitor Amazon, with revenues getting hit, then is forced to sign up on Airtel Zero, paying Zero’s charges. But then, say Net neutrality activists, a smaller firm with nice products and prices isn’t able to pay those Airtel Zero fees. So the user has to spend extra to access that smaller firm, and it’s no longer a level playing field.

What’s next in India? The TRAI consultation paper gives a hint of the likely outcome, in the last line of page 89: “The two extremes, strict Net-neutrality, and no regulation, are [both] inherently flawed”. Given the paper’s tone, allegedly sympathetic to telecom operators, it is unlikely that full Net neutrality will be enforced.

Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is known to back Net neutrality, has said that the government has set up a six-member committee to examine the issue, and submit a report by the second week of May.

The telecom industry is lying low for now. Cellular Operators’ Association of India chief Rajan Mathew refused to respond to queries for this story. His office promised a response, but there was none, in a week. 

‘Seize Your Moment, My Lovely Trolls’

Whatever the outcome, it’s likely to leave one or both sides unhappy — and perhaps knocking on the doors of the courts. The telecom sector has been historically litigious, points out Apar Gupta, a lawyer active in litigation around free speech and Internet issues. “This issue will eventually be litigated in court given the quantum of money involved,” he says. “This may be in forums such as the Delhi High Court, the Competition Appellate Tribunal and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal.”

In the US, there is strong support for Net neutrality, including from some tech giants such as Google (whose India operation, however, has been in Net-neutrality-violating zero-rating deals). On the other hand, major Internet service provider Comcast famously violated Net neutrality by slowing down Netflix (a movie-streaming service that accounts for over 30 per cent of US Internet traffic) and demanding extra money to speed it up again.

US regulator FCC’s new rules published this month (and likely to go into effect by June) say operators cannot speed up, slow down or block a US consumer’s access to any particular content. And in that litigation-happy nation, too, that’s likely to trigger off lawsuits.

What is amazing is how popular a geeky term like Net neutrality has now become. That journey probably started last June, thanks to the brilliant comedy show host John Oliver’s episode on the subject. “The US looks set to end Net neutrality,” Oliver warned. But then, the FCC was asking for opinions. “Seize your moment, my lovely trolls,” Oliver said. “Turn on caps lock, and fly, my pretties!” The next day, the FCC’s website broke down under the load of user comments.

India’s Net-neutrality advocates on social media, and backed by mainstream media, have managed to trigger a similar response to the TRAI paper — with several hundred thousand emails in support of Net neutrality. For now, the operators have stepped back from the ring, wounded, and dazed.

Prasanto K. Roy, consultant at Trivone Digital Services, writes on technology and green issues 

Net Neutrality Basics

1. What is Net neutrality?

The idea that all Internet data traffic should be treated equally, so you’re not charged higher data rates for Skype calls, or a special fee for WhatsApp, or given fast access to your telecom operator’s music portal but slow access to YouTube. Today’s Internet is mostly neutral. But this is beginning to change, with special deals or charges by Indian operators, for “OTT services”.

2. What is an OTT service?

An “over the top” service, like WhatsApp, Skype, Viber or Instagram, runs “on top” of an operator’s network. In a Net-neutral regime, you pay the operator only for the data you use, whatever the type of service or app.

3. Why do operators not want Net neutrality?

“We have invested billions in networks, and now Skype or WhatsApp want a free ride (while hurting our call and SMS revenues).” So operators want to charge extra for such OTT services. And since they’ve paid high spectrum fees and get low revenue per user, and they want to boost revenue through sponsored data deals like Airtel Zero.

4. What is Airtel Zero?

Zero is an Airtel platform that lets users download and use specific apps free of data charges. Those charges are borne by the app vendor. (Reliance struck a similar deal via Facebook’s, for free access to 38 sites such as Bing — so you’d have to pay extra to use Google.)

5. What can you do?

Telecom regulator TRAI has published a 117-page consultation paper (read at seeking consumer views on licensing OTT services and Net neutrality. You can participate in the debate by sending your views to — as responses to the 20 questions in the paper. Or, if you want to voice your support for Net neutrality without so much effort, it’s easier via the website or