Uninor data subscribers will now be able to access Wikipedia without any data charges. Users will able to access Wikipedia sans data charges for three months, starting April 1, 2015. The telecom operator already offers similar free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Montenegro.
Early last year, Uninor had started offering its subscribers Facebook at Rs 0.5 per hour and Re 1 for a day of WhatsApp. At the time, Uninor’s nominated CEO Morten Karlsen Sorby had said that the company was “moving out of data and moving in to Internet”. He had added that “selling Internet as rupees per MB is like selling air or train tickets as rupees per kilometer. 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.”
This creates a situation where consumers are more likely to use services that the telecom operator is pushing at them because they’re cheaper to use, or are faster. Either that, or they’re likely to use these services more than their alternatives. Making these services cheaper makes competing services comparatively more expensive.
This is not the first time that a telco has partnered with web services to offer free access to the service. The most recent example being Reliance Communications, which partnered with Facebook to offer free data access to a bunch of websites to Reliance customers through Internet.org. The RCom-Facebook deal or the Uninor-Wikipedia deal essentially ensure that consumption for some portals become free, and some remain paid. The Indian consumer is cost-conscious, and they’re likely to lean towards what is cheaper. They can effectively extract a payment for ensuring that some sites dominate others. This violates net neutrality.
However, I also want to point out another issue: In November last year, the Norwegian telecom regulator had clearly stated that zero rating was in violation of the Norwegian guidelines on net neutrality. Given that the Government of Norway owns significant stake in Telenor Group, which owns 100% stake in Uninor, why does the telco have a different policy in its own country and a different one for India? Read what Telenor Group’s EVP and Head of Region for Asia, Sigve Brekke had to say on this here.