Why Airtel Zero Does Not Violate Net Neutrality

Contrary to what is being projected by some, the Airtel Zero is not going to split Indian internet into, free or paid, local or global or big or small. Nor its a threat to net neutrality. We need to come out of that herd race to get a clear picture

airtel-zero-net-neutralityOver the pas few days, since Airtel Zero was launched by Bharti Airtel on April 6, a heated debate is going on over net neutrality and the very basis of ‘free’ internet is being discussed, dissected in such a manner, it appears as if, some kind of ‘extra terrestrials’ are invading Indian Internet space. And if we do not protest, and protect ourselves right now, we are going to loose our identity, and probably, will be ‘extinct’ very soon. The mood in media, to join the debate, is euphoric. So euphoric that, in all channels of media, like conventional, online and social, the participants started abusing and threatening others, and each other.

Though I’m all for net neutrality and total freedom of the internet, it would not be correct to nip the bud of innovation in the name of net neutrality. Airtel Zero is an innovating marketing approach, whic on the face of it, appears to be a win-win situation for both the parties – consumer and app developers.

Still, for the sake of our readers, it is of utmost importance to discuss the issue in details.

But what was the issue? Is ‘Airtel Zero’ the issue or ‘net neutrality’ the issue? I have a very simple and plain question to ask. “Do you clearly understand the ‘Airtel Zero’ plan and the concept of ‘net neutrality’?, or “Are you part of the herd who without having clarity over an issue, join the crowd, and follow a trail that leads to nowhere”?

Let’s Understand Net Neutrality

Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality), according to Wikipedia, is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.

In simpler terms, it means, the government or an internet service provider should not charge internet or data usage in differential method. One should not be charged differently for different applications, or your data download or upload speed should not be different for different content types. Means, you should not be charged, at one rate for using GMail and on other rate for Facebook, or for other applications. Your data speed should not be X mbps for Flipkart and Y mbps for Snapdeal, or like this.

Let’s Understand Airtel Zero

Airtel Zero is a plan or platform where app developers or enterprises can put their apps to be used by Airtel’s customers. And if a customer choose to use these apps, that are there on Airtel Zero, he does not have to pay for the data charges. Instead, the app company would pay for your data usage for that particular app. Clear? Means, if apps like A, B and C are on Airtel Zero and you choose to use apps A, B, C and D, then you do not have to pay for the data charges for A, B and C but will have to pay for D. So, is there any rate difference for using these four apps? No. The difference is, for using some apps ‘you’ are paying Airtel and for some other apps, there is ‘someone else’ paying Airtel for that data usage. So, no app or data is freely provided. Means, there is no ‘free’ or ‘paid’ concept or internet, as pointed by some media. Every app or every bit of data is being paid, but paying parties are different. Sometimes, its you, sometimes its ‘Flipkart’, for an example. So, no violation of net neutrality.

What’s For Consumers?

Let’s take an example. You are a prepaid customer and you are on 1 GB data/month plan which costs you Rs 200. Before using Airtel Zero, you used to consume the entire data of 1 GB every month and you recharge it next month for the same amount. Now, as per Airtel Zero, and according to the company, if you start using the apps that are there on Airtel Zero, you will be consuming less data and your quota of 1 GB will take more than one month to be consumed. Its because the ‘data meter’ like your taxi meter, will stop when you switch to Airtel Zero apps from the non-Airtel zero apps. Means, you consume less of your ‘own’ data which can then be carry forwarded to the next month. So, in reality, you might use the same 1 GB/month data for 2 months, hence you pay Rs 200 for the duration of 2 months compared to 1 month in earlier scenario. Isn’t that good for consumers? So, no violation of net neutrality.

Whats For App Developers?

On the face of it, Airtel Zero is a great platform for the app developers, be small or big. And I tend to believe it till the time i don’t find any substantial evidence against the platform. Now, lets understand it from an app developer’s perspective.

First, the case of a start-up. If the start-up comes on board on Airtel zero, and its app becomes available on the platform, it reaches to the number of mobile subscribers that Airtel has, say 200 million. According to the company, Airtel will also promote the brand by various means like sending out SMSes or branding it on its e-bills. So the start-ups gain access to much wider potential customers, and by doing so, they can reduce their marketing cost. As per Airtel, it can be brought down to one third of the average cost. So, what’s wrong in this?

Now, for big enterprises. Airtel Zero would treat the big guys the same way it treats the start-ups. The big guys might not in the need of Airtel’s endorsement but certainly, they get additional access to the millions of Airtel’s customers. So, there is nothing called ‘global’ or ‘local’ internet. So, no violation of net neutrality.


Now, let’s see if Airtel Zero violates net neutrality. Contrary to what is being projected, there will not be a split internet in India. Different apps are not charged differently. There will not be any ‘free app’ or ‘paid app’. All data will be paid, but the paying party might be different, sometimes its ‘you’, sometimes its the ‘app company’. The data speed will not vary depending on the app you use, but as usual, on the data plan you choose. The app guys will not have any control on the data you consume nor on its speed. It is controlled by you, by the way you use your data and by the data plan you choose. Whether paid by you or by the app company, all data and all kind of apps will be available to you, the way you are getting now. So, its wrong to portray that one would get deprived of some data, violating the law. So, there is no link of net neutrality and Airtel Zero, and there is no violation of the basis of net neutrality in this case.



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  1. Sir,

    If Airtel inspects my data packet’s destination and decides – for this packet price is Rs X and for this other packet price is Rs Y – then this is a violation of net neutrality. Agree?

    Now simply by setting X = 0 for Airtel Zero -you do not hide the fact that it is a violation of net neutrality.

    Similarly having a data pack for Watsapp = Rs X per month, Facebook = Rs Y per month, Airtel Zero = Rs Z per month is a violation of net neutrality.

    Setting Z = 0 does not justify this

    • Dear Shailesh, it would be a violation of net neutrality, if any telco, here Airtel, charges Rs X for one packet of data, and Rs Y for other packet of data. But that is not the case. But, the payer of the packets of data you use are different. You pay for some, they pay for some.

  2. Rishi Seth says:

    Interesting read. However, what will insure that Airtel will not reduce the speed of competing apps to the one’s paying for Airtel Zero?

    • If that happens, Rishi, that’d be a violation. But again, why would Airtel or any other telco do it? In anyways, they are getting paid for both the apps, one from the app side, the other from the consumer. Nevertheless, we would discuss that when the issue pops up, and not now.

      • Why would Airtel/any other teleco do it? Simple. They gain much more money getting paid by the app side than the consumer side. They themselves agree to it. They would add the marketing expenses (SMSes/ Branding on e-bills / paper bills etc) and earn hefty income from the companies. This is the prime reason that they are promoting it, because they WILL earn more money out of this entire exercise.

        Here, the argument that “all the data is being paid for” falls flat, simply because the payment of the “consumer” matters; not the company. For me, it matters that I’m not being charged for browsing ABC app, but I’m being charged (even though at the same previous charges) for XYZ app. If both of them solve the same purpose, (lets say booking a ticket), I will prefer using the app ABC rather than XYZ. I might even uninstall the app XYZ for good, just in case there are background processes running for app XYZ that consume data. There goes all hope for the app XYZ now, who, to remain in the game, must move to some teleco or it will lose its customers slowly, even though it may have had a better interface.

        That’s how a divide will be created. Only gainers in this entire operation are the telecom companies. You cannot say that it is beneficial for consumers simply because their data pack now lasts longer. Imagine – tomorrow Facebook ties up with Vodafone, Twitter ties up with BSNL and Google ties up with IDEA for providing zero-rating services. Who does a user (for whom an Airtel provides the best network in his area), go to – given that he uses all 3 – facebook, gmail and twitter equally frequently? Should he get one SIM card for each app? Should he keep changing his number / SIM card frequently?

        The basic principle on which the internet came into existence was that the data was in its entirety, equally available to all, once they had “access” to internet. The telecom companies cannot distinguish on the basis of data – whether a user is using Flipkart, so let me charge the company for this, or if he is using Gmail, he will have to pay charges himself.

        Also, what is the future of this? Market divide? Monopoly (By the companies or the telecom operators)? Tomorrow Google decides to do this – make its services (gmail/maps etc) – available to a particular segment for free – you cannot even imagine the repercussions!

        We must not allow this. Now now, not never!

        • Yash, people are unlikely to delete an app just because its not on a Zero or equivalent platform, provided the said app gives better value than its competitor.

          Also, we will be unfavorably judging upon the rationality of people that Zero plans are the only consideration and quality of service is not a factor while choosing a telecom service provider.

          What should be closely monitored and this is where regulators would have to step-in is that there are no differentiation of services in terms of speed or accessibility between Zero based services & those not on the platform and your point that telecom providers would have a vested intrest in promoting lucrative zero plans is valid there.

          And I also believe that there exists a massive trust deficit when it comes to telecom service providers and therein lies the biggest issue.

          More companies launching such plans might be beneficial to both Enterprises/ app developers & customers as this would lead to cheaper rates for businesses and consumers can get mre services for free.

  3. “there is ‘someone else’ paying Airtel for that data usage.”

    You say it like it is not an issue. That’s a big problem. Tomorrow that someone else will be startups blackmailed by ISPs to pay, and then someone else….

  4. ..we can call it Sponsored app or data plan…

  5. Gyana,

    While this article has all the makings of a propaganda, we will leave it for another discussion.

    It doesn’t matter if airtel charges consumers or data providers.

    Allowing ISPs to differentiate amongst packets of data determining consumer costs is no lesser than politicians paying voters to cast their votes.

    • Dear Abhinav, it hurts when a journalist writes contrary to what you feel right, is called propaganda. And as you said, leave it for another debate.

      I’d be the first one to write if the customer is arm twisted in anyway by the ISP, here Airtel, or anyone who is paying for that data access. But the case here is not that. Where is the violation of net neutrality? Whether Airtel Zero or not, you would get access to all the data that you have been browsing till date, you get the same data speed that you have chosen, and you can access any data or any app that you want. This scenario would remain intact post Airtel zero. The only difference, you have to pay less for all the data you consume. Some of it would be sponsored.

      I’d not agree to your analogy of voting. Here, when sponsored or on Airtel Zero, the app guy would not be asking, forcing, threatening or coercing you to use his app. Its like ‘if-you-use-its-free’.


  6. Gyana,

    But you are allowing the ISP to determine what you will be charged for which packet of data.
    It should be the consumers choice to determine what app he/she wants to access.
    A similar concept is dumping, where countries including India have banned import of heavily subsidized Chinese goods, which have an ability to suffocate local manufacturing.
    You will not want to see the same happening with Internet.

    Thanks for responding patiently.


    • Again Abhinav, the choice of which app or data to be consumed by the consumer is still with the consumer. For example if FB is not on Airtel Zero and Flipkart is on, then do you think you can’t access FB anymore? Its just the charges for accessing Flipkart will be born by Flipkart.

      The Chineses analogy does not hold good. Few reasons. Here you are comparing two products available in the market but in the topic of our discussion, we are discussing about the market itself. Let me give you an example. Its like you are going to gaming zone or imagine a traditional fair where 10 different rides like roller coaster, bungee jumping etc are there. You bought a prepaid card of Rs 100 which can be used for each ride and costs Rs 10 for each ride. Before Airtel Zero, you tend to spend Rs 100 to use all the 10 rides, but with Airtel Zero, you might spend Rs 80, still enjoy all 10 rides. Because, 2 rides are on the ride provider.
      Now tell me, did you loose your choice of using the rides? Did the free ride provider slowed the pace of the rides? Did the paid rides vanish from the fair/gaming zone? Did the fair organizer cut off the electricity supply to the paid rides?

      Now you ask yourself, did the fair organiser behaved neutrally with you, with the ride providers and the spirit of the game itself?


      • Gyana, The problem in your example of the ride is when the user goes for 4 rides instead of 2. Then he gets 120 Rs worth of ride while just paying 100 Rs. Hope you get the problem better now.

  7. This is pure case of violation of Net neutrality or Market practice..

    Points as given below to explain, request to share your feedback on same:-

    1. Are App companies buying data at deep discounted rate?
    If yes then how Operator can sell same Internet data for accessing same Internet app/site with different pricing to two buyer – consumer and app brand. This is clear violation of Net neutrality.. Atleast don’t expect us to digest that app partners would give market price for data usage.

    2. Why don’t Operator offer same deep discounted data rate to end user directly to enhance usage/adoption by consumer?

    3. Is there a discount data buying tariff chart for each App category by Operators?
    If not this means the bargain for deep discount would depend on App organisation brand and respective operator, which will use their brand/marketing budgets to outsmart new app comers. Alteast don’t expect us to digest that each Operator will sell their data at same prices, irrespective of their subscriber market share.

    4. Ecommerce apps can still give this as discount on consumer purchases revenue.. Where is Revenue on Investment (ROI) for apps like social, chats, music, news, infotainment, etc which does not sell anything but now will pay in few crore per month (for sure good revenue to operator per app partner) on behalf of subscribers on this platform? Ex. Whatsapp will be forced to give advertisements or charge consumers later

    5. One App free on this platform will encourage consumers to go for Free and silently will help app brand to create monopoly. And hence will kill new ideas and supress competition.

  8. Net neutrality stands for no discrimination – in terms of speed or charges. Everything is treated equally in every sense. From how I see it, either the base assumption is wrong on your end or worse, this is a case of paid PR placement.

    Shudders! God save India

  9. “You” Pay for some and “they” pay for some is not a valid argument in this case. The whole debate is just about this: The end user has to pay more for some data and less for other data. If I as an end user has to pay more charges for one kind of data than the other that is a violation of net neutrality. What you are trying to say is if a service costs Rs 10 and the app builder pays Rs. 5 and the consumer pays Rs. 5 and since 5+5=10 there is no violation. But the problem is net those services who are not on the zero platform will still cost Rs. 10 to the user. This is what we call as Net neutrality. It’s about the end user not about how the ISP has managed things on its own side. And since the end result is discriminating between different data, hence the violation.
    Also lets say A B C are on Airtel Zero and and new startup S cannot afford to be on the platform. Now can you imagine the consequences? it will discourage those startups from blossoming which cannot pay the money to Airtel.

  10. I am unsure about the whole thing. If i go with this article then it seems fine. If airtel is providing some service as free or complimentary, then that’s seems fine no? For Eg. If airtel say that access to Flipkart is free for airtel users, whats the problem in that ? Vodafone had a plan where they gave free FB access to new subscribers for an year and so on. Infact they came out with a FB phone itself.

    You cannot blame airtel or flipkart for entering a tie up right.

    In the end if the amount of charge we are paying is same as before with some apps free then i do not see any issues.

    However, if my understanding is correct, net neutrality means paying separate charges for using separate kinds of data. Eg. Using youtube might be expensive than using gmail or skype and so on, Which i feel should not be there.

  11. There were no answers by admin on my queries.. Today’s Flipkart did the right thing by pulling out of Airtel zero plan..

    Would like to thanks everyone for sharing your views to make this happen.

  12. i thought Airtel wale were apna aadmi … But these fellows changed their color when they saw the app makers were making more money than the service providers .. Digest nehi huwa unse .. Lol … Well, to be honest, its not easy to give some vague explainations to cover up and get away with your tricks !! Sab chalak ban gaye hai …

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