This Christmas if Airtel subscribers are planning to use mobile internet for Voice over IP services such as Skype or Viber to cut costs, then they need to think twice. Airtel – the largest cellular service provider in the country – has decided to introduce differential pricing based on type of mobile Internet usage.
Earlier reported by Telecom Talk, Airtel 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. As the per the new data policy: “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).”
With the introduction of selective pricing specially for VoIP services that have threatened Airtel in this data driven Internet economy, it has also stirred the ongoing global debate of net neutrality in the country.
Threat from VoIP and messaging services
Earlier this year when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion, telecom operators were uneasy with the development. To make matters worse Ovum predicted that the shares of messaging apps and VoIP based services are going to grow and hit telcos severely.
The report stated that global telecom companies will lose $386 billion between 2012 and 2018 from customers using over-the-top VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) solutions such as Skype and Microsoft Lync. These losses will be mostly from international call revenues and roaming services. These companies had already suffered loses of $32.5 billion in texting fees in 2013 and the figure is projected to reach $54 billion by 2016.
The state has been the same; operators especially Airtel have been lobbying hard to bring messaging apps under certain regulations. However the pleas so far haven’t received much ground from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Last we heard on this matter was that TRAI was working on a discussion paper to better understand Over The Top services such as WhatsApp and Viber which the organisation cannot regulate as of now.
In such a scenario, introducing selective charges for certain services is the best possible move from Airtel to fight the threat from VoIP services. While it has also got into content business by building its own Internet app to challenge the Internet services, the new pricing has also attracted the net-neutrality discussion in the country.
Net neutrality debate
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally not discriminating or charging deferentially by user, content, site, platform, among other things.
US is already witnessing an extensive debate on the issue. Advocates of net neutrality such as Lawrence Lessig have raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content. Examples of net neutrality violations include Comcast that intentionally slowed peer-to-peer communications and the recent proposal to provide “fast lanes” for data intensive video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
In fact US President Barack Obama has also called for new regulations to protect net neutrality. However, his call for greater regulation of internet as utility has stunned major telecoms, lobbyist groups and politicians.
Airtel’s latest pricing violates the principles of net neutrality, it is now moving from “There’s an App for That” to “There’s a pack for that”, points out Medianama. “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.”
Meanwhile, Airtel has issued a statement following an outburst by online media: “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.”
In other words, while Airtel is not blocking internet services or slowing down sites it is playing with the cost of access. It might appear as a small issue but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Tomorrow Airtel can implement this logic on any other OTT service that it thinks is eating into its revenues, like WhatsApp, Facebook, or any other app.
It wouldn’t be too bold if I go one step ahead and predict that Airtel may provide selective and better packages for those services that join its oneTouchInternet app. Will TRAI look into it as it previously examined Airtel’s data packages offering access to Facebook and WhatsApp for fixed but nominal amounts, or are we going to see other operators in the country follow the flag bearer?
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