Tiered Network Access, A Challenging Regulatory Framework

Tiered Network Access, A Challenging Regulatory Framework

There are only a very few places left on earth where all people are treated equally irrespective of their nationality, race, creed, religion, gender, or orientation, and one of them ‘was’ the internet. Recently, with online neutrality losing its ground to cheap tactics of some greedy ISPs (Internet Service Providers), this one place also will be infested with people that discriminate based on allegiance (if, I can say so).

To give you a gist of what Net Neutrality is, it’s thought that all websites or networks should be treated equally, or to put it in a more elaborate manner all data that is available online should be treated the same, no matter the user, content, geo-location, hosted a party, device used, etc.

For example, let’s consider our ISP to be identical, if I want to be accessing Linkedin and you were accessing Slideshare, net neutrality forbids our ISP from charging us differently for accessing different sites/portals.

However, this established order was changed by the TSPs (Telecom Service Providers) once they started an all-out war against Over-the-Top (OTT) services.

Earlier and even now in most cases, the revenue models of the TSPs were more of voice dominated and fewer of knowledge dominated. Post dotcom burst, with the exponential increase in data-driven services, many OTT services leveraged the infrastructure of these TSPs to deliver their services. And this resulted in a conflict of interest because TSPs believe OTTs eat into their revenues, actually, that’s not the case. Most of the TSPs have seen a mild increase in data-driven revenues with the advent of OTTs.

Airtel Zero

December last year, Airtel in India disclosed their intention to charge VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) (vis-à-vis Skype, Viber, etc.) services separately i.e. for every call that is made through any of these services, will be charged extra. But immediately after the public outcry, Airtel scrapped its intention to go with the proposed plan; however they made a defense statement on #airtelpledge,

“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.”

There are two scenarios that can arise from this,

  1. The affiliate providers will increase the price of whatever they are selling online, to cover the costs incurred by partnering with Airtel, eventually, it’s the customer who has to bear the brunt.
  2. Hidden costs, which cannot be quantified arise.

And this would be probably how Airtel will react,

  • Airtel can repudiate the price factor and claim it’s up to the affiliate providers to show prudence. Well, this is true. Nevertheless, the result is an outcome of Airtel zero.
  • Airtel can always claim there are no charges for accessing affiliated partner data, how do you corroborate it? How can one quantify the bandwidth consumed on Airtel zero with the charges levied overall?

On August first week, Airtel posted its earnings call. Their revenues rose by 40% beating the market estimates, with mobile data revenue increasing to 56.9% and overall usage up to 83%.

It is quite evident that OTTs have not eaten into their revenues; instead, it’s their greed that is curbing our right to a free digital world.


Facebook’s internet.org has construed the term Net Neutrality publicly. Their claim is to provide free internet access to users who otherwise cannot access the internet due to a lack of resources.
Remember, this is often not free access to all of the internet’s content but rather access to content/data from a few handpicked big boys from the business world who can pay for their data being hosted on internet.org

If Facebook, genuinely wanted to help the poor it should have set up the infrastructure that is needed to reach the masses, partnered with the TSPs and reduce the tariffs on data plans, and provide all of the internet’s content for reduced cost on bandwidth used.

Reliance Communications (RCom) has launched internet.org in India for its subscribers. When a user logs in to the internet.org site on RCom, they’re given two tabs one with free services to 33 affiliate websites/portals. And the Reliance tab where one can examine the info plans offered by Reliance. Facebook on RCom has provided a scaled-down version of their service to suit internet.org, and for downloading images – users have to buy data plans from Reliance.

So ideally nothing is free.

The irony is that internet.org wants the poor (or people without access) to return online and use the elevating power of the digital world. However, they’re not granting the poor right to choose, the content is already chosen for them.

They call this “Zero Rating”… a sugar-coated kind of depravity…


The Telecom regulatory authority of India (TRAI) has sought opinions from the cellular operator’s lobby, NASSCOM, and the public generally on Net Neutrality, to form a decision on the future course of their action. Over 10lakh emails were sent by the public in support of Net Neutrality and NASSCOM suggested Net Neutrality possesses to be upheld to enable the start-up ecosystem of our country to flourish against the bullies.

However, the Department of Telecom has not come up with a choice and remains seeking comments/suggestions from the public on Net Neutrality. the govt. of India has decided to extend this deadline after seeing a surge in comments/suggestions that poured in.

All that one can hope for during this vicious circle of tug-of-war is, some sanity creeping into the govt. and its regulatory body.

If India truly stands for Freedom of Speech/ Freedom of Expression then the govt. should prove it by giving us the Freedom of Un-Curbed Digital Accessibility.