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Airtel CEO Responds but Remains Evasive as Ever on ‘Airtel Zero’ and Net Neutrality

Airtel-LogoAfter Flipkart’s withdrawal from Airtel Zero amid controversy over Net Neutrality, India’s largest telecom service provider Airtel defended its product on business consideration along with the Prime Minister’s fad for digital connectivity.

However, Airtel fails to answer the key objection raised by the advocates of Net Neutrality about not allowing third parties on its Airtel Zero platform. Ironic but the new Internet access free of cost to the rural and entry-level segment will end up forcing their search on Internet within the domains of Bing or such other paid partner.

But Bharti Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal on Saturday insisted in an e-mail sent to the subscribers that the company is “dedicated” to Net Neutrality claiming that the company is imaginative and prescient. “Our imaginative and prescient is to have each Indian on the web. There are tens of millions of Indians who assume that the web is dear and have no idea what it will probably do for them.”

He said to make them join the digital revolution, the company wants to permit them to experience the thrill of the web. But coming from a TSP whose dubious schemes in the past infuriated users make it more difficult for it to convince the public now. The entire first decade of the 20th century stands testimony to it.

Starting from charging unsolicited music tunes without even the knowledge of the consumer, Airtel gimmicks and fraudulent practices have led to hue and cry in the whole country that the government had to set up TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to bring them down on fleecing front, if not others. But they remained “innovative” as ever to bring in “one song video” on mobile phone for Re.1 that for a toss and loss.

Undaunted, Airtel has proposed to charge extra for those who use its Internet for phone calls like Skype and for SMS messages using WhatsApp as it is eating into their revenue. However, this too met with angry portests and the company hastily withdrew it last year.

Come 2015, Airtel brought forward its new platform, Airtel Zero, to provide free Internet access not to the entire worldwide web but only to few partners, including Bing for instance, if not Google. Unwittingly, sleeping web world in India rose up to the occasion in an unprecedented way that even Flipkart had to bow out of it. Here is the full text of Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal’s email to subscribers on Airtel zero:

“Dear Customer,

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.”

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