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Free internet with a catch is controversial

business Updated: Apr 13, 2015 08:52 IST
N Madhavan

A furore has erupted over the Airtel Zero plan from Bharti Airtel – which aims to take the Internet to the masses by making it affordable. In fact, free. The catch is that this will be like a censored sort of Net access in which those who go for the plan will get a collection of apps that are free to use. Flipkart is said to have paid money to be the e-commerce app featured on Airtel Zero.

I am not sure if it should be stopped – as some activists say it should be because it goes against the principle of Net Neutrality in which content and apps are delinked from bandwidth access.

On the other hand, there are those worried about the business viability of telecom companies. For instance, you could argue that displaying data-charge-free apps is like showing advertisements in a newspaper so that its production cost comes down.

There is a key difference, though. Newspapers have free access to newsprint. Telecom operators and Internet service providers (ISPs) use limited spectrum rented from the government.

In truth, ISPs need to compete on quality and customer service – and the easy out is to charge app and content producers indirectly for access. This is a “gatekeeper premium” as distinct from service charge.

But Airtel Zero is different because customers are not being forced to use it. What it does is to make people “taste” the Web.

In effect, what the scheme offers is a “voluntary net un-neutrality” where you opt out of Net Neutrality in exchange for free bandwidth. It is difficult to ban that. But the government would do well to discourage it.

The best course for the government and the telecom regulator is to work towards tax benefits for ISPs while making Net Neutrality compulsory. This will be akin to the universal service obligation (USO) fund that has been used to spread telephony across the country – whose benefits are by now known.