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Net Neutrality violation: Airtel introduces differential pricing for type of Mobile Internet usage

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Update: Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said the ministry will look into this issue, reports PTI. We hope he’s not merely waiting for things to die down.

24th December 2014: And so it begins: In what is a violation of principles of net neutrality, Bharti Airtel has introduced differential pricing based on type of Mobile Internet usage: it has begun by charging consumers differently for using the Mobile Internet for services such as Skype and Viber, and differently for other types of Mobile Internet usage. Telecom Talk points us towards this change in Airtel’s terms and conditions for 3G services:

All Internet/data packs or plans (through which customer can avail discounted rate) shall only be valid for internet browsing and will exclude VoIP (Both incoming/ Outgoing). VoIP over data connectivity would be charged at standard data rates of 4p / 10 KB (3G service) and 10p / 10 KB (2G service).

An Airtel representative has confirmed to MediaNama that they’ve changed these terms because they are launching a separate VoIP pack. They’ve sent a statement:

“We have made some revisions in the composition of our data packs, and will offer VoIP (Voice over internet protocol) connectivity through an independent pack that will be launched shortly. Our customers can continue enjoying voice calls over data connectivity by opting for this VoIP pack, or simply use VoIP services on pay-as-you-go basis.”

We had outlined three core principles of net neutrality:

  1. All sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators shouldn’t block certain sites or apps just because they don’t pay them.
  2. All sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP level): This means no speeding up of certain sites because of business deals. More importantly, it means no slowing down some sites.
  3. The cost of access must be the same for all sites (per Kb/Mb or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating”. In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access, because, well, we don’t have fast and slow lanes: all lanes are slow.

At a conceptual level, this means that consumer experience will not be determined by how the telecom operator or ISP distinguishes between Internet companies or apps. Airtel’s action of carving our VoIP from a data plan violates the third principle.

Moving from “There’s an App for That” to “There’s a pack for that”

You might look at this and say – Who uses VoIP on Mobile Internet anyway? At least it’s not Whatsapp…That doesn’t matter. If you need an indication of where this could go, there’s a paper from the Cellular Operators Association of India, of which Airtel is a key member, which points out what Telecom operators consider as OTT (Over-The-Top) services, which telecom operators feel eat into their revenue:

1. VoIP
2. Instant Messaging (IM): WhatsApp, iMessage, Hike, G talk etc.
3. Applications (Apps)
4. Cloud Services
5. Internet Television
7. M2M – Machine to Machine (M2M) communications
8. Social Networking

Airtel has introduced the first of such packs, and there’s no telling whether they’ll have separate packs for downloading apps, instant messaging or cloud services. This is called ‘Deep Packet Inspection“, and has implications of filteration and privacy: your telecom operators is tracking what you are using your mobile Internet connection for. Airtel and Uninor have mentioned such plans before. From our ‘That’s what Telco’s said” post on Net Neutrality:

We launched our entertainment portal our 1 rupee store. We are trying to change the vocabulary away from megabytes and gigabytes in to songs and videos and we are very pleased that a very large percentage of new users are coming in through that store” – Gopal Vittal, Joint MD & CEO, Airtel, on January 29, 2014.


“We are moving out of data and moving in to Internet”…”What customers do with Internet is to use it for services like Facebook or Whatsapp. Our plan is to make these services the cheapest on Uninor” – Morten Karlsen Sorby, (then the nominated) CEO of Uninor, on Mar 11th, 2014.

What else can they carve out of the Mobile Internet plan?

The COAI paper points out that there are six ways that telecom operators can deal with Internet services that they feel impact their existing revenues:

a) Blocking the OTT – First, they can block OTT services, if regulators let them. This is a short-term strategy and limits the revenue-generation possibilities for the operator and is not a favoured route.
b) Price Play: Operators can adjust their pricing to make OTT services less attractive, either by charging more for rival services that run on their networks or by making their own cheaper.
c) Direct partnerships with OTT players: Operators like 3 UK and Verizon have partnered with OTT players, such as Skype. This will probably benefit the larger operators.
d) Retaining billing relationship/data charges Mobile operators are monetizing the access to OTT services via data charges bundled within the monthly package. Operators can adjust their pricing to make OTT services less attractive, either by charging more for rival services.
e) Developing and launching their own services/Telco apps: Operators’ fourth option is to provide OTT services themselves. T-Mobile USA has launched Bobsled and Telefonica has introduced Tu Me, both of which offer free voice and texts. 33% of operators have launched their own OTT-based clients.
f) Teaming up as part of the GSMA’s Joyn initiative: GSMA (the mobile operators’ industry body) is promoting a collective response, formally titled Rich Communication Suite-enhanced (RCS-e) but marketed more snappily as “Joyn”. At first Joyn will offer messaging, “rich” calls allowing simultaneous sending of pictures and video, and file-sharing. Joyn’s selling point is that it will be built into phones and thus available automatically across networks. There will be no need to install an app. Operators such as Orange, Vodafone, Telefonica, Telenor and T-Mobile are attempting to create a new OTT standard by enabling Rich Communication Services (RCS-e).

It’s about time the Telecom regulator TRAI and the Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad did something about ensuring net neutrality.

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  • ChamatkariChor (Baba)

    Forget Ravi Shankar Prasad. Where is TRAI? Did Airtel not feel the need to seek an OK from them? If TRAI is too dumb to grasp the importance of such issues, what business do they have to even exist?

    • Chintak

      TRAI has done a commendable job earlier. They have been a strict regulator. however it seems TRAI was not involved in all these plannings but now TRAI should pitch in and stop this non-sense. Already we are paying hefty amount for internet that is not so fast

  • Deepankar Joshi

    If this was happening in the EU or USA there would be an outrage amongst the population !!! here as most of us are not net savvy the operators can enforce whatever plan they want to experiment with. By the time the aam people will realize what the operators have forced upon them will be just too late

    • Mathew Carley

      This *is* happening in the USA (and there are whispers in Europe but nothing really solid yet) but unfortunately the outrage is minimal except among those of us who care about the Internet or technology in general.

  • Nalin Mishra

    What’s disturbing is that there seems to be hardly any mainstream discussion of this

    • Ramesh

      Do you think spineless media would go against a govt which would benefit them by giving big subsides to their owners

  • IndiaNama

    Setting aside the outrage, and it is outrageous, for sure, and also granting that this is setting a precedent which ought to be stopped immediately, I’d like to know how they plan to implement this and other practicalities.
    1. Are they going to run DPI on all mobile Internet traffic?
    2. What if the traffic is encrypted, can DPI still work?
    3. What if a subscriber uses a VPN?
    4. Can Airtel really inspect, sort and count in real time every packet that goes through their wireless network?
    Dick move, Airtel. If any provider with adequate 3G coverage in the metros commits to not pulling this kind of stunt for two years, I’ll switch to its network.

  • I believe this was turned down by TRAI already before of having separate pack for whatsapp..

  • Once this thing goes live without any intervention from TRAI & Telecom Ministry or by getting their approvals, where does this end.

    Today it’s just Airtel setting the precedence, what stops other operators from coming up with such packs. Packs for e-com sites, packs for weather apps, packs for news sites and what not.

    Sadly all this violates net neutrality and privacy, which many folks, politicians, bureaucrats or media don’t care about much.

    And is there any law in India that makes DPI illegal?

    • Mathew Carley

      >>And is there any law in India that makes DPI illegal?

      Sadly, no. In fact, the government is heavily involved in it.

  • Very Interesting Informative POst , Superb Guide line Very Long post ,

  • Chintak

    Companies like Nimbuzz, Viber, Skype are heavily dependent on India-as a market. We are growing country in terms of Internet usage. We are heavy internet users despite having slow internet connections. 2 MBPS is a luxury! With such moves, they are discouraging India’s internet market.

    I aagree with the first line – Hope Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is not giving false hopes and waiting for this movement to subside. If this happens, soon other telcos will follow the trend and then whats next ? – Separate pack for Video streaming, audio streaming, IM, apps etc. ? If this happens, we would be shelling 1k bucks every month. Indians will be highly discouraged to use such apps then ! Shame on Airtel!!

  • amr
  • Ramesh

    Acche Din aa gaye!

  • Ramesh

    Clearly all subsidies are been given to Big corporates and the burden is being passed on common man..

  • Ramesh

    If this is implemented its better to migrate ur number to some other provider

  • abhi_284

    Your headline is misleading. This is not the first time net neutrality principles have been violated in the indian market. These are examples of other providers’ “special packs” http://imgur.com/a/NpJZa#0

  • Mathew Carley

    While I like and support the idea of net neutrality as a principle, what’s wrong with zero-rating popular content? So long as there is not a specific financial incentive to do so (this would include having a specific set of plans which offers this as a feature rather than just giving it all subscribers – as Airtel is, or being paid large sums by the content provider – as Netflix has been forced to do in America – to connect and/or prioritize their traffic, and not blocking anyone else from establishing themselves).

    Hypothetically, if I want to zero-rate a site or set of sites like Google/Youtube because it costs me next-to-nothing to establish private peering with them (thereby reducing my operating costs and the load on the lines that do cost a lot of money WHILE allowing me to by it’s very nature deliver a superior experience because traffic to that site is no longer subject to the routing whims of my upstream provider), why shouldn’t I?

    On the other hand, if I was being paid by Google/Youtube to prioritize their traffic over (DailyMotion/Bigflix/etc) and/or denying the opportunity for other content-providers to connect to my network or charging a large sum of money (beyond whatever might be reasonable – say, enough to cover the cost of the optics at their end and maybe some electricity or something) that’s a different story and I would completely understand any outrage.

    But zero-rating what we can? I see that as a path to removing things like those pesky FUPs. My alternative would be to charge for traffic that costs me nothing and pocket the difference and increase my profit margin – good for me/company/shareholders but sucks for the customers.

    • Shailendra

      Netflix paying Comcast/Verizon exorbitant sums is not even an issue of zero-rating a service. Netflix is the single largest driver of internet bandwidth in the US. It drives 34.2% of all downstream usage during primetime which is more than double that of Youtube. It is silly to think that any ISP will ever zero-rate a service like Netflix(or Youtube for that matter).

      However, the services which are zero-rated include largely services which are not data intensive and primarily textual. If you pick a list of services that are usually seen zero-rated by ISPs, Facebook Zero – a text-based version of Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Wikipedia etc. None of them require huge data bandwidths. None of them will even affect your FUP in a noticeable way.

      Apart from this, an ISP might zero-rate its own app/service to boost initial growth, which is at first unfortunate yet an increasing practice among telecom giants.

      • Mathew Carley

        I’m well aware of the statistics, but I think you misunderstood my comment (possibly due to the lead-on sentence). I was talking about financial incentives as they pertain to content delivery and prioritization, which I expanded upon in later paragraphs.

        Zero-rating of sites including but not limited to Youtube (and it’s regional counterparts) is popular in many countries – India included. I believe Tata DoCoMo has a Youtube plan for Rs9/day or something on 3G – presumably it’s 9 rupees a day whether you watch 2 videos or 200. In New Zealand, Snap offers unlimited Youtube for an extra $5/month as an add-on for it’s DSL and Fiber services. These are just a couple of examples, of course.

        What I’m arguing *FOR* is an ISPs ability to peer directly with a large content provider because a certain percentage of their traffic already comes from/goes to a certain network – peering directly cuts out the middle man and frees up bandwidth on those routes for other customers to view other sites and improving the experience for everyone. Considering the minimal costs (after the initial setup) involved in doing so, being allowed to zero-rate traffic shouldn’t be a problem. Either that or the ISP can simply pocket the difference and continue to charge despite the removal of that cost (which if we’re talking 10gbit/s in India, is fairly substantial) otherwise maybe they can increase quotas across all subscribers (it’s something for nothing, I suppose).

        Similarly, I would argue *FOR* the ability for an ISP to zero-rate it’s own app/service ON THE CONDITION THAT it does not adversely affect any other app/service, prioritize it’s own app/service over others, or prevent competitors from peering directly as above – so being forced to use ISP’s VOIP service rather than Skype or Exotel is a no-no, as is prioritizing traffic in such a way that would cause (for example) Skype calls to drop while the ISP’s own service works perfectly.

        What I would argue *AGAINST* is things like what is being proposed here and what I’ve seen done by other ISPs per my second paragraph: which include things like paid prioritization and/or peering (paid by the content provider), plans which offer access to only a limited part of the Internet (such as Facebook Zero, VOIP-only plans etc)

        That being said, it is *mostly* on mobile services that these sorts of plans seem to pop up, and in that respect they can definitely have a noticeable impact on your data usage depending on your habits, since if you only have 250MB to 1GB a month to work with, there’s not much you can do, even on a mobile, before that cap is gone.

        On the subject of net-neutrality, ISPs should treat all traffic equally from a technical standpoint. If you’re going to give VOIP traffic top-priority in the network, you have to give ALL VOIP traffic top-priority and not just that which flows to/from certain services.

        • Shailendra

          You make some valid points.

          The Tata DoCoMo Youtube Data plan you mention isn’t exactly so. It is capped at 100 MB for 9 rupees(which is about 90 INR/GB). Post free usage charges are even more ridiculous, of about 3000 INR/GB.

        • Mathew Carley

          Not being a DoCoMo customer and relying on third-party information, I never saw that fine-print. Thanks for the clarification.

          Still, ~Rs90/GB is more reasonable than what they’ll charge you for 1GB of regular-old Internet usage, isn’t it? The price bar seems to be about Rs200-250 for most operators these days but TBH I haven’t been following much since I’ve not been at “home” for a while so haven’t visited my local topupwala.

          Those post-free-usage charges are pretty obscene – you could buy more than 3mbit/s wholesale bandwidth for that (delivered in pretty much any metro by Tata Global Networks, subject to volume purchase and such). But 3mbit/s works out to over 900GB (so, over 90,000% markup if you ignore things like equipment, tower and spectrum charges).

        • Shailendra

          That’s staggering! I haven’t used mobile data in ages. BSNL used to offer uncapped unlimited internet for Rs199 with bandwidth not a lot better than a 56k, that was in the late noughties probably.

          I’ve been really lucky to find ISPs one after another who offer reasonably priced internet without FUP. I see your Hayai has expansion plans for Jaipur as well, waiting till then!

  • Robbing us in daylight

    Everyones in on it, including the higher ups who are payed to turn a blind eye. India is so corrupt it makes my blood boil , to even read the newspaper.

    We are already suffering from one of the lowest & priciest Internet connection on the planet. Hell I’m surfing / crawling the net with shitty 100kb/s while I was ensured it should be at least 500kb/s

  • Tapas Saha

    Airtel কানেকশন ভীষণ বাজে !
    হেল্প লাইনে আপনি নেট কানেকশন নেওয়ার সম্পর্কে বিস্তারিত জানতে পারবেন কিন্তু আপনি আমার মত এই লাইনটি নিলে কম্পানি প্রতি নিয়ত আপনার MB চুরি করে নিয়ে যাবে যেমন আমারটা নিয়ে যাচ্ছে , এর প্রতিকার চাইলে আপনি তাদের সাহায্যতো পাবেন না বরং ফোন করতে করতে আপনার ব্যাটারির চার্জ ফুরিয়ে যাবে !বিভিন্ন ফোন কম্পানির মতো airtel ও সাধারণ মানুষের টাকা প্রতিনিয়ত চুরি করে চলেছে !আপনি আপনার দামী মোবাইল চেক করলেই তা বুঝতে পারবেন ! তাই আমার অনুরোধ আপনারা সবাই সচেতন হোন, এব্যাপারে দেশ কিছু জানে না ( কারন 10 টাকা জন্য 10000 টাকা খোয়াবে না কেউ কোর্টের দড়জায় আর ব্যপারটা কোর্টে না উঠলে চোরের চুরি করা অমানা ! )হাস্যকর !