Few days back I posted Mahesh Murthy's take on anti #net neutrality and Airtel's 'Airtel Zero' plan. After a huge outcry (over 800,000 emails to the Government) and Flipkart's final decision of backing out of Airtel Zero, Bharti Airtel's CEO Gopal Vittal wrote to customers on April 19, 2015, explaining why they love net neutrality and why Airtel Zero is benign and just some "technology platform". Below is the email.
Over the last few days you may have seen a lot of conversation on our toll free platform Airtel Zero. It has been painted as a move that violates net neutrality and we have been very concerned at the incorrect information that has been carried by some quarters in the media as well as in social media. I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air and reiterate that we are completely committed to net neutrality. Let me clarify.
Our vision is to have every Indian on the internet. There are millions of Indians who think that the internet is expensive and do not know what it can do for them. We believe that every Indian has the right to be on the internet. We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the internet they will join the digital revolution.
Airtel Zero is a technology platform that connects application providers to their customers for free. The platform allows any content or application provider to enroll on it so that their customers can visit these sites for free. Instead of charging customers we charge the providers who choose to get on to the platform.
Our platform is open to all application developers, content providers and internet sites on an equal basis. The same rate card is offered to all these providers on a totally non discriminatory basis.
There is no difference between this and toll free voice such as 1-800. When a company selling an insurance product enrols into the toll free voice platform, customers who call the number are not charged but when they call a normal number they are charged. Calls are not blocked or given preferential treatment else our whole business would be jeopardized. Toll free voice helps the business owner engage with their customer. At the same time it provides the customer the benefit of reaching the business for free. Toll free voice is not a product or a tariff plan, it is merely a technology platform. We are simply taking the same concept of toll free voice to the world of data. As a result it is for the application developer and their customer to decide how data charges will be paid for. If the application developer is on the platform they pay for the data and their customer does not. If the developer is not on the platform the customer pays for data as they do now. Companies are free to choose whether they want to be on the platform or not. This does not change access to the content in any way whatsoever. Customers are free to choose which web site they want to visit, whether it is toll free or not. If they visit a toll free site they are not charged for data. If they visit any other site normal data charges apply.
Finally every web site, content or application will always be given the same treatment on our network whether they are on the toll free platform or not. As a company we do not ever block, throttle or provide any differential speeds to any web site. We have never done it and will never do it. We believe customers are the reason we are in business. As a result we will always do what is right for our customers.
There has been a deliberate effort by some quarters to confuse people that we will offer differential speeds or differential access for different sites. This is untrue. After all we earn revenues from data. If there are more customers who are on the Internet the better it is for our business. Our revenues are not dependent on which sites they visit because we charge on the basis of consumption of mega bytes not which site they visited.
In sum our platform is a technology platform and is open to all application developers and their customers. Our platform only provides a choice of how the data that is consumed is paid for by any of the two - the application provider or their customer. Whether any application provider enrolls on the platform or not is entirely their choice. All we have is a technology. We do not have a product or tariff plan that we have launched. We simply have a platform. And every application developer and their customer is free to choose in an entirely neutral way what they want to do.
In conclusion, we stand fully committed to net neutrality to ensure the goals of the Prime Minister`s vision of digital India are met.
MD & CEO
Bharti Airtel Ltd.
India & South Asia
In response to Gopal Vittal's e-mail, venture capitalist, marketing consultant and corporate speaker Mahesh Murthy writes -
Here's how I suggest you reply to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Subject: Dear Mr. Airtel CEO, my concepts are right. Perhaps you have a misconception.
Dear Mr. Vittal,
Thank you for writing to me. It’s a refreshing change from seeing some operator’s association fronting for you.
I’d like to correct some serious misconceptions you have about the internet, the role it plays in my life and how I’d like it to be.
1. First, the internet is critical to my life, my future, and that of my family. As you’ve heard our Prime Minister say, a Digital India is essential for this country to develop. And core to a digital India is equal and unfettered access to the Internet. The internet is a global collection of interlinked sites and there is only one internet. For my future and for all our futures, this one internet has to be freely accessible and open to all. This one internet cannot be broken into separate collections of sites available on separate payment plans. So I am most concerned when someone tries to sell parts of the internet separately, at different price plans, including some at a price called ‘free’. This breaks the internet, and I do not wish that to happen.
2. Second, I’m glad to see you say that you support net neutrality. I understand your company may have conducted tests in the past where you’ve deliberately throttled down video and audio bytes to give a bad user experience on those, so that you have the opportunity in the future to charge more for these as separate services. Given your stated support of net neutrality now, I hope that will never happen again. I am aware what happened in the US between Comcast and Netflix, and I hope, with your statement, that something like this will never ever happen on any Airtel network.
3. I also hope you understand that there’s nothing special or different between a byte of video, a byte of audio and a byte of text going through your network. They’re all the same, and they all go through at the same speed. I am happy to pay a competitive price for the amount of bandwidth I consume regardless of whether it’s audio, video or text – and I take your statement as a commitment that you will never have a separately priced YouTube pack, or a specially priced WhatsApp pack or Facebook pack or whatever.
4. I appreciate your acceptance clearly that you’re an internet bandwidth provider and the applications I use on this bandwidth that you provide are not your concern – as long as you charge for the data consumed. I understand that your commitment is that all data from all applications that I use will now be delivered equally promptly with no discrimination and separate pricing, either based on the type of data I am using, or the application it is emanating from. I thank you for your new stand and clarity on this issue.
5. While that is a welcome step, that is just one part of net neutrality. I am sure you have read the news that the government’s TRAI believes that zero-rating plans like Airtel Zero and Facebook Internet Dot Org both violate net neutrality. Here is a link to that - http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-04-16/news/61217927_1_net-neutrality-app-makers-open-internet.
6. But even if you were not to take the government’s word for it, you’ve probably seen that over 800,000 email have gone from concerned users like me to the Government to ask them to ensure net neutrality and to ban all kind of zero-rating plans. That should give you an idea of the number of people who have a clear concept about what exactly they expect from licensed internet providers in India. I have no opposition to only your plan, it’s nothing personal – I also oppose all other zero-rating plans including what Facebook is pushing via something called Internet Dot Org on the Reliance network. If you stop this Airtel Zero plan on my network and never bring back anything like it ever again, and I’ll be your fan again.
7. I now hear you say that your commitment is to bring the internet to everybody in the country and that is why you wanted to cordon off one section of the internet, get it subsidized and sponsored by the sites in that cordon, and offer that at no bandwidth cost to the users because you can't afford to do it yourself, even though you declared over Rs.7,800 crores in profit last year. This is interesting, because the reason quoted so far by your representative at your association has been that “you spent a lot of money and hence you want to make more money”. Good to know of your altruism, even though it is in the form of making others pay for the charity and developmental work that you say you want to do
8. Let me tell you other reasons why I am opposed to any sort of zero-rating plan. There are new things that happen every day, somewhere in the world, and the internet helps me discover these. I discovered long-lost contacts on WhatsApp through this digital word of mouth, I discovered new parts of the internet via Google this way, I discovered my friends on Facebook this way, I discovered new jobs on Naukri this way, and I also discovered your offerings and services this way. Now if you cordon off one part of the internet, no one in that restricted zone will ever be able to discover or experience anything new – all they can see are the few and limited sites of the rich companies who have paid you to be placed on that so-called free channel, and the users can’t go anywhere else. Many of these new offerings will come from start-ups and young companies who have no money for subsidizing Airtel bandwidth and hence the users of your cordoned-off service will never discover them. Innovation – especially as driven by our Prime Minister’s Made In India drive, will die as a result. And the worst affected will be the people that you apparently are doing this for – at the bottom of the pyramid. That is why Airtel Zero is such a bad idea. I understand people at the bottom of the pyramid have a huge hunger for knowledge and information – but it is horrible to feed them just a limited tiny diet from wealthy companies who can sponsor your bandwidth and who are looking to recover the money they paid you by exploiting these poor and needy folks. That’s a tragedy, and don’t you think it’s somewhat shameful that your firm is a part of it? Let’s not exploit the unwired and the poor.
9. I appreciate this new view from you that your vision is to get every Indian online, and that it’s not about making more money, unlike what your association has been saying so far. But if you truly, sincerely, really look at getting this bottom of the pyramid online, you’ll see that bandwidth cost is the least of the issues. Bandwidth can cost Rs. 49 a month or even less – but people first have to get a Rs. 2,000 phone or device, and learn English to use it. Then they have to have good coverage where they live. The challenges are many and difficult.
10. I can see that you have a huge issue delivering even regular telephone calls without dropping them multiple times in urban areas, or even delivering the stated bandwidth to paying customers - how many of your paying 3G users actually get 3G speeds? How many of your paying 2G users actually get 2G speeds? I for sure don’t get what I pay for from you – and perhaps that’s a good place for you to start, if you really want to help develop our country. Why not start by catering to your paying customers and not short-changing them? I am unclear how you’ll deliver bandwidth that even paying customers like me pay for – let alone the free customers who are spread all across India where your networks probably don’t even reach. The challenges as we agree, are many, and bandwidth affordability is not among the key ones.
11. Further, if your objective is to bring these folks online – why not just offer a cheaper plan that all can access, where the entire internet is open to them – and not just the elite and closed-garden neighbourhood of rich sites who are paying you? Why not a Rs.5 a month, open Internet access plan? I’m sure you can do it – bandwidth prices are falling the world over.
12. I also want to ask you this: I don’t know if you and others in your management team have growing children. But if you do, would you send them to a cordoned-off part of the internet sponsored and run by wealthy sites where they can’t go anywhere else? Or would want them to enjoy the full internet at a low cost, where there is no bias just to sites owned by wealthy corporations who can sponsor the bandwidth? I am sure your answer will be that you’d never wish that your children – or even the children of your maids and drivers - should ever be on a broken internet limited to sites sponsored by rich, exploitative companies.
13. One more thing: I keep noticing your mention of toll-free numbers. I know that is not an appropriate analogy. Toll free numbers work when people have phones – and can easily get to all the other numbers they want to call. That is not the case here – to state the equivalent here: people have no phones and no coverage, and what’s stopping them from making calls is not some high cost of calling. In reality too in India, toll-free hasn’t been important because the cost of phone calls was always affordable to all. Maybe that’s the lesson here for all of us. Give us a more affordable open internet. Not an internet broken into pieces with one elite area paid for by rich companies only to exploit poor people. So let’s leave this toll-free analogy aside – it’s not relevant to the point.
14. I want to end with one remark. I do know that your service, and that of other telecom companies, runs on bandwidth and airwaves owned by the Government and people of India. You merely have a license to use it, that too in a way as prescribed by the Government. Under all these circumstances, I hope you will agree with me that any kind of restrictive Internet plan that blockades poor people to seeing sites only owned by wealthy companies does not promote India’s development or that of my fellow citizens. I appreciate your altruism and desire to help develop India in an inclusive and meaningful way. To that end I request you consider offering better service across the board to paying customers, to lowering your cost of internet access for all, and yes, to withdrawing your Airtel Zero plan.
That will help clear all misconceptions about the good you want to do for our nation.