Update 2: We’ve just received a response from Airtel:

“Fair Usage policy is an internationally accepted norm among the global broadband operators. We have observed that few of our customers have been using an excessive amount of bandwidth, thus impairing the browsing experience of an overwhelming majority of broadband users. To ensure that all our customers enjoy the best quality broadband experience, we have introduced the Fair Usage Policy. This policy is aimed at encouraging responsible usage among the very few, who make inappropriate use of this service.”

Frankly, what Airtel and Tata Indicom are doing is – impairing the broadband experience for a few, in order to ensure a better broadband experience for others. Or as George Orwell might have put it – Some broadband users are less equal than others.

Update: Some have mentioned that this isn’t a net neutrality issue. Our opinion is based on points (a)(1) and (a)(4)(A) and (b)(2) of the US’ Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Do leave a comment on whether you think this is against the principles of net neutrality or not.

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Original Story: For all the goodwill Airtel has generated with reliable broadband connectivity and prompt customer service, they’ve now instituted a “Fair Usage” policy that is anti-consumer and, in our opinion, goes against the principle of net neutrality

As of last quarter, Airtel had around 992,775 broadband subscribers – around 18.2% of India’s limited broadband subscriber base, and offers services in 95 cities. Interestingly, Airtel’s wireline ARPU was reported to have increased 11% year on year in Q3, though it was down quarter on quarter.

Not Quite Unlimited

Airtel has defined “fair usage” levels for unlimited data transfer plans, and as users cross certain threshholds, the company will reduce speeds for the rest of the billing cycle by as much as 50%. Consequently, by controlling access speeds, they will limit the amount of data that users have access to. Download Airtel’s “Fair Usage” policy document here.

At an ASSOCHAM meeting on the new IT Act 2008 (Amended) a few weeks ago, I had asked about the institution of Net Neutrality in India – only to receive puzzled looks from those on the panel. It’s quite a co-incidence that the issue has reared its head in the country shortly thereafter. 

Why Such A Policy?

According to the LIRNEasia report submitted to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the speed of Airtels broadband connection deteriorates at multiple times in the day, notably, after 8pm. Download the comments here (related report here) We think that these are probably users who are downloading content overnight, and hence leech the bandwidth.

Frankly, we don’t think that should matter – if an ISP is offering a particular bandwidth and selling unlimited usage, they should provision for 100 percent utilization. Just because an ISP isn’t geared up to deliver on what they are selling doesn’t mean that they should institute such a discriminatory policy.

We’re wondering if Airtel is merely trying to weed out heavy users who may be responsible for a large amount of broadband bandwidth consumption. Most customers who will sign up for Airtel’s unlimited plans will not be aware of their “Fair Usage” policy, and they surely won’t be pleased when they learn about it when their access speed is limited. 

We’re in favour of neutral networks, and disagree with Airtel policy of modulating users access speeds.

In Line With Comments To TRAI

 

In their comments to the TRAI, Airtel had recommended giving Internet Service Providers the power to restrict the few bandwidth huggers’ from the pack who deteriorate the experience of the majority normal users. We’re not sure if the TRAI has accorded Airtel that power, but they appear to have gone ahead with that practice anyway.

On Monday, the TRAI announced that for broadband consumers, telecom operators must maintain a contention ratio of 1:50 — i.e. 50 users competing for the same bandwidth. 

Related:

— More on comments from ISPs to the TRAI, an details of contention ratio here.
— Petition against Airtel Fair Usage Policy
— Airtel’s Speed of Rationalization – Facebook ToS Style Goof Up

P.s.: Thanks for the tip-off Gopal.