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Move over Internet.org: Airtel launches its own gateway to the Internet

airtel-one-touchAirtel has launched ‘One Touch Internet‘, it’s own version of a gateway to the web, which offers a limited set of services as trial packs to consumers. This is in line with Airtel’s strategy of offering Internet to consumers as services, rather than as data, and has significant implications for net neutrality. Airtel currently has 15.5M 3G connections and 40.1M mobile Internet connections, and it wants more.

We checked, and the gateway includes services from the following “vendors”, in the following order:

– Refer a friend
– Facebook
– Twitter
– 2G to 3G
– Videos (entirely from YouTube)
– Free Facebook (watch an ad and watch free Facebook)
– Mobile phone offers for Airtel Users
– eShopping (first screen has Snapdeal, and on swiping right, Flipkart)
– Travel: with only MakeMyTrip
– Photo Store
– Video Store
– News (hosted on AirtelLive, appears to be powered by India Today)
– Sports
– TV (coming soon)
– Movies (coming soon)

From a net neutrality perspective, this means that while Snapdeal and Flipkart are featured to first time users, Amazon and Infibeam lose out. YouTube is showcased, and Dailymotion isn’t an option. Only MakeMyTrip gets access to Airtel users, and Cleartrip and Yatra miss out; India Today gets read, but Times of India and Rediff don’t. Why has Airtel selected some services, and not others? Access to the Internet via this gateway isn’t neutral, and we see this as an anti-net neutrality ploy from Airtel.

Possibly a bait and switch game

We see this move from Airtel as classic bait and switch:

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– Consumers will use this to access services using free trial packs, and will later be switched to paid packs for specific services only, instead of being given the opportunity to discover the web and its offerings for themselves. The fine print (which, incidentally, we couldn’t find on Airtel’s Onetouch Website) states:

“No browsing charges applicable. Users can enjoy free limited access of upto 5 service trials in a day, after which standard rates for Volume Based Charges (VBC) will apply”.

Update: An Airtel corporate communication executive has informed that OneTouch’s terms & conditions are here. As per the FAQs, all link outs or third party sites that one goes to via Facebook will be charged as per regular browsing rates.

All trials expire except the YouTube trial ends at midnight. YouTube trial ends 20 mins later. After expiry, users will be charged as per their base pack or the rack rate. These free trials are also limited to prepaid consumers, with postpaid consumers getting access to only tutorial videos.

– Vendors will probably see this as marketing until traction is significant for Airtel to switch this to an MVAS model.  It’s not clear whether Airtel has replicated its Mobile VAS revenue share model with OneTouch Internet, and whether the vendors listed above are paying the company for their offerings to be provisioned to Airtel users.

For more context on the how telecom operators and, notably, Facebook are playing this game, read: What Mark Zuckerberg didn’t say about Internet.org

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Need for separation of content and carriage

Becoming a gateway also tends to create a situation where the same entity is both the carriage service and the content provider, and all the partners listed above are merely vendors. This gives Airtel an inordinate amount of control over content provided. We believe that there needs to be a strict separation of content from carriage, and carriage providers should not either be allowed to provision and provide content: in the past, we’ve called for making MVAS companies independent of telecom operators as well. Telcos should remain access service providers, and essentially allow consumers access to services on their networks, and not select services.

In this context, the communications convergence bill, which might be brought back, with a super regulator for telecom, TV and Internet, is very worrying.

The Sugar Coating

1. Handholding Users: Airtel is pitching this offering as a means of getting first time users on to the Internet. Srinivasan Gopalan, Director, Consumer Business, Bharti Airtel is quoted as saying that “…our market research has shown that there are millions of customers across the country who own an internet-ready mobile device and are keen on getting online, but are apprehensive due to reasons like lack of know-how and fear of incurring heavy data charges. Airtel’s ‘One Touch Internet’ will address these very customer challenges and play the crucial role of hand-holding first-time mobile users as they discover the internet. We believe that this initiative can play a transformational role in breaking perception barriers among customers and demystifying the internet not only for the young and urban, but for people from across generations and social strata – thus giving the Indian masses an opportunity to enjoy their first ever internet experience.”

2. Language interface: English and Hindi are currently available, and 8 other Indian languages will be added

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That’s fairly similar to what Mark Zuckerberg said about Internet.org a few months ago. Airtel has learned from Facebook pretty quickly.

Questions for Airtel

We’ve sent Airtel the following questions. We’ll update in case they respond
1. How did Airtel select which sites to include in One Touch Internet? In that context, why only MakeMyTrip and why not Yatra or Cleartrip?
2. For how long will the specific services (Snapdeal, Flipkart, India Today / Airtel News, MakeMyTrip, Facebook, Twitter) be listed on On Touch Internet? In case each contract with a service provider is different, please provide us with a time-range.
3. Under what circumstances is a service removed from the list on OneTouch Internet?
4. Does any service provider selected for this service pay Airtel for being listed or for trial packs being enabled?
5. Apart from data packs, is there any other way that Airtel monetizes OneTouch Internet?
6. How can a service provider, whose service isn’t in this list, ask for inclusion in One Touch Internet?
7. Is a customer informed about the expiry of a trial pack once it’s over? Is a second confirmation taken from a customer once Airtel enables this as a paid service?

Questions for Airtel Partners (we’re contacting Snapdeal, Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube)

1. Do you pay Airtel for the provisioning of your service to Airtel customers?
2. Do you get any revenue share for provisioning of your service to Airtel customers?

Also see:

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Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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