The launch of the Airtel Zero platform by Bharti Airtel and Internet.org by Facebook in partnership with Reliance Communications are prima facie in violation of net neutrality principles as these are based on differential tariffs for end-consumers, says department of telecommunications (DoT) secretary Rakesh Garg.
In an interview with Business Standard, Garg says, "From the consumers' end, there are different kinds of choices - some paid-for content and some free. Net neutrality says as far as the consumer end is concerned, whatever comes should come at the same price. It should not be dependent on any plan. The way net neutrality is understood, it (the launch of such platforms) violates the principles."
When asked about telecom players' concern of OTT (over-the-top) players having a free ride through their network while they pay licence fees, spectrum charges and others to the government, the secretary says the two issues are not comparable.
"Telecom players are under a licensing regime, nobody has forced them to come. They knew what the rules of the game were and have been working in that. OTT players are working in their own different set of rules. And they have not come up in the last one-two years. They almost came at the same time as mobile phones. Telcos never objected to their environment then, today they say the environment has to change."
However, he says a DoT committee will take the final call on whether OTT players have to be brought under the licensing framework or not.
Meanwhile, DoT, through its internal committee, is in the process of formulating a report on the net neutrality issue. Simultaneously, telecom regulator TRAI will also come out with recommendations on the issue through a consultation process. The DoT report is expected to come out by the end of the month, the secretary says.
Recently, telcos, including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, had come together clarifying that they fully supported net neutrality but demanded that there be the same rules for all players offering voice communication services. Application providers such as WhatsApp and Skype also offer voice services through an internet platform.
Bharti Airtel's launch of Airtel Zero platform on April 6 had triggered a debate on the issue of net neutrality across the country and many experts said the launch was against the principles of net neutrality. On the platform, companies, including start-ups, can offer apps for free. The app maker will pay for the customer's free usage to the operator and users don't have to pay any data charges.