Hang net-neutrality, it seems. Bharti Airtel has once again raised the issue of being paid by Internet companies like Google and Yahoo for allowing consumers to access these sites: Jagbir Singh, Director (Network Services Group) at Bharti Airtel has said in an interview with the Hindu Business Line, that it should be getting “interconnection charges” for data services, adding that content and services companies like Google and Yahoo are making money at the cost of telcos, which had actually invested money in setting up data pipes. He appears to be unhappy at content companies being valued at much more than telcos, and felt that setting up networks was more capital intensive as they pay for spectrum while voice revenues were on a decline. The report mentions that 40% of the total data traffic for Airtel was from service like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
This is similar to what Airtel’s MD Sunil Bharti Mittal had said at the Mobile World Congress, stating that “The fact is that nobody really sees it from the other way – that YouTube is consuming massive amounts of bandwidth on the network. And somebody has got to pay for that. If Google, Facebook and others are not going to pay for it, it will be transferred entirely onto customers,” he had said at the MWC.
This comes at a time when VAS revenues are declining, an independent ecosystem around data is developing: as Vodafone India’s Head of Data and Internet Services, Jonathan Bill mentioned at MediaNama’s Monetization of Mobile Apps panel (on Saturday), the share of off-deck services (versus on-deck data services) for Vodafone India is now as high as 80%.
What Airtel Is Forgetting
- Customers are paying them for access to these sites: As an Airtel customer, I am paying the company to access the Mobile Internet without speed restrictions (never mind the fact that I’m also paying for low speeds and poor network reliability) and without preferential treatment being meted out to whoever pays them to allow users to access sites.
- Increasing data usage is in their interest: The more people access sites like YouTube, the more users get billed if they aren’t on some of the low cost data plans. What will they do? Block YouTube or slow it down if blackmailing Google doesn’t help?
- Large data plans at low cost are their own creation: It’s Airtel’s problem that they came up with cheap Internet plans (I’m paying Rs 98 per month for 2GB on 2G), haven’t got ubiquitous 3G connectivity in place. Can I afford to pay more? Sure I can. What Airtel is proposing, is something that is akin to having its cake and eat it too.
- They need these sites to get more data users: While Singh and Mittal might be peeved that YouTube is consuming massive bandwidth, they need Google, Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo to drive Internet adoption. Remember that telecom operators partnered with Facebook for Facebook Zero, and used that tie-up for marketing online Internet access to consumers. Sounds like a sleeping with the enemy scenario. Airtel (Broadband) also partnered with YouTube during the IPL, to offer their own broadband customers higher speeds of access during the IPL.
- What does Nikesh Arora think about this? He’s President for Sales for Google, and on Airtel’s board of directors.
- Will (Bharti) Airtel also consider charging Hike, an application from Bharti-Softbank, or to BSB’s JV with Yahoo Japan, to allow consumers to use it?
The TRAI Needs To Keep Watch
While Airtel hasn’t implemented any anti-net-neutrality measures (apart from the YouTube tie-up for IPL), repeated statements by two top executives (Mittal and Singh) are a cause for concern.
The TRAI needs to keep a watch on Airtel’s anti-net-neutrality statements: both in terms of wanting to provide preferential access to services for payment and also in terms of metering consumer access speeds, offering higher speeds (or zero cost of access) to their partners, at the cost of other service providers. The network needs to offer a level playing field to all service providers, to encourage an open and competitive Internet ecosystem, and the regulator needs to ensure that remains the case.