Imagine the kind of an Internet you would have in India three years from now, once the Airtel Zero idea of creating a free Internet by allowing Internet companies to buy data, becomes the norm across telecom operators.
The top four telecom operators are adding around nine million mobile Internet users a quarter. India is adding around 14-15 million a quarter, and that’s around 60 million a year, probably more.
Where will the next 200 million users that will come online in India prefer to go? Will they buy a data pack, or will they use the free Internet? How will they react when they move from a zero site to the open web, and get a popup that warns them that they will be charged?
Airtel Zero splits the Internet in India: Airtel Zero, is a platform that allows Internet companies to pay money to Airtel, to allow users to get free Internet.
Free and paid: What will they use? Facebook’s free Internet.org. Free Cricinfo. …YouTube will be free while Vimeo and Dailymotion will not be. Shopping from Flipkart at no data charges? Google, a part of the telecom lobby COAI and a serial violator of net neutrality in India will be free. They’ll have to think before buying a data pack to access the freedom of the open web.
So, two Internets. Free and paid.
Indian and global: When a new app launches globally, will they line up outside an Indian telecom operators office, so that they can reach that 200-300 million users in India? Imagine if YouTube had launched now as a startup, and it wasn’t owned by net-neutrality-violating Google. Do you think they would have cared about being made available in India?
So, two Internets: Indian and global.
Between big and small Internet companies: Indian Internet companies will need to raise higher funding, for their sites to be made available to free users who don’t have a data plan. So, Flipkart, with $1.9 billion raised last year, will be free, but, maybe, DailyObjects with lesser funding will not.
So, two Internets: one for the big funded companies, one for the rest.
Between telecom operators: Now take this situation with Airtel, and replicate it across telecom operators.
Different services free on different operators. Telecom operators could do exclusive deals with some sites so some sites will be free only on one telecom operator, or available to those 200 million odd users from one telecom operator.
So, how many Internets? 26: Two Internets per telecom operator, and 13 telecom operators (including Jio). If ISPs also go down this path (BSNL, Airtel and MTNL are the largest), and there are over hundred ISPs, then we would have hundreds of different Internets in India. Oh, just to clarify, that isn’t a good thing.
Nikhil Pahwa has covered the business of digital media in India for over 4 years. Prior to founding MediaNama, he was the Editor of contentSutra (now owned by the Guardian Media Group). Over the years, he has helped bring a pan-media perspective to digital media reportage, highlighting industry issues, identifying opportunities and problems, and questioning the efficacy of decisions being made by some large media companies.