Bharti Airtel is planning to introduce an applications store for its fixed line customers, reports Business Line. The company, which has over 3.1 million fixed line users and 1.3 million broadband connections, will be looking to partner with content owners for this. K Srinivas, President (Telemedia Services) Bharti Airtel is quoted as saying “Within the next 6-12 months, we are working on moving a dumb pipe to an enriched pipe.” Business Line suggests that fixed line users will have access to mobile applications, and as unlikely as that sounds, it’s possible if there’s either a simulated environment for running mobile apps, or if users opt for a platform change to, perhaps, the Chrome OS or Android.

Airtel currently does have an applications marketplace for its Nivio powered Airtel Net PC, which we reviewed, here; the applications available are desktop services, some for free, and some for a fee. This is a highly controlled environment, with most being accessed via the cloud, and almost nothing stored at the user end. This isn’t likely to be the service being used currently by most of Airtel’s broadband subscribers.

MarketPlace

In the broadband scenario, the ‘dumb pipe’ is a consumer friendly situation: telecom operators provide only access to the Internet for a fee, and don’t offer preferential treatment to specific websites or services. Airtel’s plan to be an ‘enriched pipe’ is welcome, because it can serve as a key resource for first time Internet users to discover online content. AOL built out AOL.com in exactly this manner, as Sify Broadband, which loaded Sify.com and SifyMax.com whenever users logged in. Allowing users to discover content through an app store, or even the Internet equivalent of an on-deck WAP portal will help them discover new content and services. Globally, people are using search for discovery, but what of those first timers who don’t know what to search for? So an applications store, and a website for enabling discovery is welcome.

But there is a dark side to an ‘enriched’ or ‘smart’ pipe: the neutrality of access through ISPs has been under threat for a while. In contrast, Mobile Networks tend not to be neutral – services are provisioned for consumers in a gated environment, and there used to be instances of access not being allowed to certain sites, even on Airtel, through Airtel Live. Telecom operators in India, including Airtel, Videocon, MTS and Tata Docomo have, over the last six months, offered access to certain sites for free, as promotional initiatives, providing preferencial treatment to a few sites over others, in terms of cost of access. On Broadband, Airtel Broadband did upgrade the access speed for its users for YouTube during the Indian Premier League. Verizon and Google recently announced a joint proposal to allow content companies looking to deliver bandwidth heavy services, through a separate set of pipes, for a fee. More on Wired.

If Airtel does launch an application store for its broadband users, it will be a rather interesting how far it plans to go, in order to smarten its dumb pipe. Not too over-smart, we hope.