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
6. IPTV
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.

and,

“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.