A rebuttal to the Airtel Zero Press Release & Why Net Neutrality Matters

This is a quoted, point by point rebuttal to the Airtel Zero Press Release, an ingenious piece of writing that can be viewed in its entirety here. Do read that before diving in.

Let's do this by the paragraph.

It’s only been a couple of days since the launch of Airtel Zero, an innovative and open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications “free of cost”, and we are seeing a big and somewhat unrelated debate on net neutrality with regards to the product.

Before we get into whether the debate is unrelated or not, it's nice to understand what net neutrality is. Nikhil over at Medianama has a very clear explanation, but it boils down to this: no blocking or throttling, transparency and no paid prioritization.

Airtel Zero is a data plan designed to zero-rate app usage. That's paid prioritization and violates net neutrality, and this is why we're having a debate. I'm sure by some stretch of imagination you can call this plan innovative, but as it stands right now, it's hardly "open". Only a select few partners have been invited to participate, and while Airtel says this will change, they haven't announced pricing tiers or any selection criteria whatsoever. What do I mean by this? Let's take the top free apps on the Play store: you have at least two messaging apps and at least three ecommerce apps. Will all of them pay the same charge to Airtel Zero to sign up? How will Airtel charge video consumption on its network as opposed to messages? These questions currently have no clear answer.

While opinions from critics of the product are very welcome, it is pertinent that we set the record straight and look at some key facts relating to Airtel Zero and the benefits it brings to customers and the industry alike.

First and most important point: Airtel Zero is “free” for all our consumers and open to all marketers. Yes, open to all – big or small.

Setting the record straight is a noble goal. However, the passage that follows is disengenous. Let me rewrite that. First and most important point: Airtel Zero is "free" for all our consumers ("free" in quotes, because either they don't have any other alternative or they can't easily opt out from it, and also because we might charge in the future) and open to all marketers who pay.

In fact, since we announced Airtel Zero on April 6, over 150 start-ups – with majority being small start-ups – have contacted to enquire about the product. For the record, every one of them told us what a great platform we will be providing to them and for a change they will have an “equal opportunity” to run with the big boys. On an average, Airtel Zero will help reduce their marketing costs by almost three quarters. Not bad, I would say, though some may still feel otherwise.

Almost three quarters? So wonderful! How are these marketing costs calculated I wonder? Because we launched Chillr a while back and didn't pay a dime to Airtel to market our product and still got a ton of users. In fact, almost all of our marketing were either word of mouth or through our launch partner HDFC Bank. Now in addition to these costs, we'll have to pay Airtel too? How amazing! Isn't this great?

Also isn't it great that Airtel is going to charge us the same amount that it's charging PayTM? Yup the same PayTM with $575M+ in bank. Such a joy to have a platform on an equal footing. [/end sarcasm]

There is also a high level of misinformation surrounding the product, which is not surprising since the very concept of Net Neutrality is a bit misunderstood. Let us also bust some of the myths regarding Airtel Zero.

Agreed. Let's clarify.

Myth: The product concept amounts to preferential access

Airtel's Reality: Not at all. Airtel Zero provides universal access and is free for all our customers. Customers have the choice to decide whether they want to come there or not.

Actual Reality: It's true that customers have a choice whether to port out of Airtel or not. Let's imagine a scenario where every mobile operator has such Zero schemes. Where would they port out to? This is where regulators such as TRAI have a role.

Also, Airtel Zero doesn't provide "universal access". That would mean (and this is going by the definition of universal), every website and app would be zero rated. Preferential (again by a common man's dictionary) is when certain apps and websites are zero rated, and certain others aren't. Who decides these apps? Airtel. How are they decided? By some form of (as yet opaque) commercial agreement between these app & website vendors and Airtel.

Myth: Large companies with big budgets will be favoured and smaller start-ups will lose out

Airtel's Reality: NO. On the contrary we have had lots of ‘small’ start-ups calling us and congratulating us for building this platform, which offers them a great opportunity to market their products at very low costs. Over 150 companies are already in touch with us and want to sign up.

Myth: ‘Smaller’ Start-ups will not be able to afford to pay for the data charges

Airtel's Reality: Why not? Today, when a consumer downloads a new app and uses it for a day, the total amount of data consumed is roughly about 20-30 MB. Assuming a price of INR 1/MB of free data, this will translate to INR 20 for the start-up. Compared to this, the average cost of marketing digitally through large media/ internet companies is about INR 50 to 300 per download. So, this platform will actually make it cheaper for small companies to gain distribution as well as visibility.

Actual Reality: If the 150 number is true, it's sad that a lot of startups are buying into Airtel's ploy: it's apparent short-term benefit for longer term disaster. On the other hand, 150 is still a fraction of the Indian startup scene.

How many first time entrepreneurs will be able to afford Airtel Zero? That's a rhetorical question since Airtel hasn't announced pricing tiers, but let's assume it's Rs. 20/user as Airtel did. So to get 10000 users, I have to chunk out INR 2L to Airtel. Let's assume it's a free game that a small startup is developing that has the potential to become the next Angry Birds. To get the first million users on board, the startup would have to pay Airtel INR 2Cr. Is this in any way fair or reasonable for a small startup that wants to offer a product for free? For a larger venture-backed company however, this might just be written off as CAQ (customer acquisition cost). There is an inherent discrimination here which cannot be contested by fancy language and stats of increasing adoption.

Even assuming that Airtel would do everything a dedicated marketing company would do1, comparing voluntary payment to a third party agency to market your product and what amounts to extortion ("pay us or else we make the customer pay") is absurd. Don't fall into this logic trap.

Myth: Telecom companies will charge other companies for data used by customers. This is a way of making money.

Airtel's Reality: Telecom companies have been working with businesses for decades to offer ‘Toll-Free’ voice services, wherein, a business pays to a customer to call in. Airtel Zero is the same concept.

Actual Reality: When we were a mobile value-added services (mVAS) company, we used to work quite closely with mobile operators. They had a business model that was very similar to the current App Store models that Google & Apple have. It was a lot more controlled though, in that telecom operators decided which apps to have on their deck, and who to promote via campaigns. There was also another important difference: the store owners—the telecom operators—took as much as 90% of the revenue. Needless to say, there wasn't much innovation happening in the industry. The best product to come out of that era were caller ring back tones. I don't think anybody remembers them with fondness.

When Apple (and to a much larger extent Google) opened up their stores with a more reasonable revenue share and better capabilities through smartphones, we had an explosion of creativity and innovation. I remember working with mobile operators to open up their cell-tower based location APIs until one day all of us realized that smartphones had a GPS and we didn't need them anymore.

Nobody wants telecom operators to be the toll-booth operators for the data era (like they are for voice & mVAS). This will stifle innovation and lead us back into an age where you need a data carrier's support (& perhaps permission) to launch a product.

More importantly, data should be thought of as a service-agnostic transport for apps and content. Imagine a scenario where Airtel comes up with Airtel Zero messaging plans (for Whatsapp-like services) and Airtel Zero dating plans (for Bharat Matrimony & Tinder). Is this a world we would like to live in?

Myth: Airtel Zero is against Net Neutrality and gives advantage to those who can pay for data.

Airtel's Reality: As a concept Airtel Zero has nothing to do with Net Neutrality. It is free for each and every customer and offers the same speed to all. It charges the same amount to each company for data without any discrimination.

This is a recurring theme now, but Airtel's scheme is discriminating against any app or website vendor who does not or cannot join Airtel Zero. It is also zero-rating apps that are part of the Airtel Zero program. Positive discrimination violates net neutrality.

Myth: Speed to access the apps that are not on Airtel Zero will be throttled

Airtel's Reality: Completely incorrect. There is no difference in speed to access various apps, whether they are on Airtel Zero or not.

I think it's too early for Airtel to promise no throttling, but let's take them on their word. This however, ignores the larger issue that customers would pay (or pay more) to access websites or apps that are not a part of the Airtel Zero program. This leads to a drop in adoption for new apps and services.

It's also hard to believe that this isn't the start of a slippery slope. Why not have a "Airtel Zero Prime" plan for select businesses who will then get better data rates?

Today, some mobile devices can store 50 or more apps, others can store five and some can't even do so. Will Net Neutrality imply that all devices must be standardised and offered at the same price to make the net neutral?

There are multiple mobile technologies – 2G, 3G, 4G - to access internet. Should all speed and pricing be the same in the garb of Net Neutrality?

Nobody is asking mobile operators or manufacturers to be toll-booth operators for the Internet. Left to itself, industry forces will drive down the price for more capable smartphones and drive up average data rates. Certain services (like say Youtube) will only be accessible beyond a certain data speed (perhaps what TRAI classifies as broadband now). Perhaps in the future there will be certain apps, websites or services that will only work at 1Gbps. But those products will only succeed if they are useful and valuable and there is a sufficient customer base that can use them. As an aside, I think this paragraph was just written as an aide to misdirection, this hasn't come up at all in debates, and is frankly ridiculous.

Some customers pay cheaper data rates based on volume purchased. Does Net Neutrality imply that everyone must pay the same rate irrespective of usage?

What Net Neutrality implies (and perhaps this is getting repetitive) is that for data purchased by a customer, he gets access to all of the Internet without any blocking, throttling, in a transparent manner, and without paid prioritization. Airtel Zero falls into the last category (paid prioritization), and is a mechanism whereby participants of the program get their apps and websites zero-rated on Airtel.

In the end, the debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly – a large number of people are still not clear on what Net Neutrality is all about. This gives an opportunity to the so called experts to make various as well as baseless arguments. While their point of view is important, we should have a more informed and nuanced debate without painting a picture that is based on rhetoric rather than reason.

I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of what is said in this paragraph. Creating FUD is not helpful and a reasoned understanding of net neutrality is in order. However, an article that is factually incorrect & misleading (see contentions above) and bombastic (see the last quote below) isn't helpful either.

Given the facts above, what better way to contribute to the Digital India vision of the Government of India. Never before has an open and innovative platform like Airtel Zero been on offer that will help drive internet adoption through free usage (and companies and app developers being an equal partner in the process). It will also drive innovation in the internet and mobile app space by providing a cost-effective and non-discriminatory platform, in particular, to smaller companies. This will truly drive ‘Make in India, For India’.

TLDR: Let's be blunt about what Airtel Zero is. It's the last-ditch efforts of a mobile operator to retain pricing control over its data network. By providing a mechanism to zero-rate certain apps & websites that join the programme, Airtel Zero is engaging in paid prioritization, which violates net neutrality.

When it couldn't innovate and bring great products out in an open market, Airtel seems to now think charging other folks who do is a great strategy. Honestly, it's just sad to see such press releases.

About the author:
Vishnu Gopal is CTO of a technology company based in Kochi, Kerala. Views expressed are personal.

Comments:
Do be rational when you comment. Trolls aren't appreciated.


  1. This is ridiculous because telecom operators in India don't even know how to market their own products.

Moving to Ghost

After a long run with Wordpress1, this blog is finally switching to Ghost. Why Ghost? Here are three sweet reasons:

  • Markdown. Probably the single biggest reason by far. Markdown has won the format war for me and it's the easiest and most portable text editing format out there. Wordpress support for Markdown feels like an afterthought at best but Ghost has it as a first class citizen.
  • Ghost is a non-profit. This is another biggie. I'd like to have a simple, stable solution that'll last for the next 10 years. And where the CEO will never say things like he wants to be the next web platform.
  • Ghost is built in Node. Which is far more hackable for me nowadays than Wordpress PHP.

Here's three things I'll miss:

  • Comments: this is the biggie. Ghost doesn't have comments inbuilt, and the best solution seems to be Disqus, whose UI I abhor for some reason. This site hasn't been particularly comment-heavy ever2, so this is not a pressing concern.
  • Hosting: I used to use Wordpress.com hosting and even though it was expensive, there wasn't a worry of managing servers or backups yourself. I've now created a Digital Ocean account.
  • The Publicize plugin. I liked the notifications being posted to Twitter every time I posted & that'll not happen anymore.

A nod of the hat to the following projects who made this happen:

  • wp2ghost: An importer from Wordpress XML.
  • Vapor: A great theme that I instantly liked.

Why not move entirely to a static site generator like Jekyll? While that might yet happen, I like friendly UIs a bit much because it lets me focus on the writing.

Things left to do:

  • Set up redirection for old blog posts.
  • Set up comments. I'm leaning towards Facebook comments for now. Implemented Disqus despite its ugliness because the other options seem worse. Facebook comments aren't responsive, and Google+ is just meh.
  • Set up Cloudflare for DDOS protection. This is necessary, not a luxury anymore for this site.
  • Move code to Github. Here!
  • Bring back old comments. Surprisingly not as hard as I thought. Disqus has a very robust import system.
  • Move to SSL default. Slight weirdness, but Cloudflare has a Force SSL Page rule.
  • Send email via Mailgun Very easy.
  • Bring back images on older posts.
  • Correct links to old writing posts.

I'll keep updating this post as the adventure begins again.

  1. This blog used to work with B2, Wordpress' predecessor.

  2. Except for a few articles about the dastardly Relief India Trust.

Android & iOS

I've been a long-time iOS user, and recently when my two-year old iPhone 5 fell down and broke its screen, I bought an interim Android device and used it for around two months. I took notes during these 2 months on what's better about Android & what's worse, and these are my impressions. I now own and use an iPhone 6 Plus.

Caveats:

  • The device I bought was the Micromax Unite 2 which costed me ₹7300. The device (iPhone 5) I compared it with costed me close to eight times that. This should be on the top of everybody's head. Having said that, I tried to ignore device quirks and am mostly just commenting on the OS differences.
  • I had iOS 8 on the iPhone for around 2 weeks before I broke it. The Micromax device had Android 4.4.2, and not Lollipop, so I'm not comparing the latest versions. From what I've seen of Lollipop, it looks much nicer.
  • I'm a longtime Apple user. My first Apple device was a Mac Mini in 2006, and I've used only Macs since. My first iPhone was the iPhone 4, and I've only used iOS since. A lot of these impressions can be just because I'm used to the way Apple does things.

Having gotten that out of the way, let me start with the areas where I found Android was significantly better:

  • Widgets make the home screen look much nicer. I didn't use many widgets, but I appreciated the ability to have them. I liked the Timely Alarm clock widget in particular.
  • Passwords are not asked so frequently for app installs, which is very nice. This was one of the constant irritants on iOS. Having Touch ID mitigates this a lot though, because it's much easier to thumb than type in a complex password. The Google App install experience is way better, with detailed time remaining sliders in the notification centre and a lot more info.
  • Phone seems to shut down & start up way faster. While I don't do this much, the difference is pretty amazing.
  • Contacts integration with Gmail contacts is much better & smoother, especially the option to find and consolidate duplicates. Somehow it doesn't work as well on the iPhone.
  • The Dialer app is much better looking & far more functional, but seems a tad slower. Frankly, I hate how the iOS7+ Dialer looks like. Plus receiving location information ("Calling from Hyderabad") for unknown calls is great & Truecaller integration makes this even better.
  • I installed the Google Now launcher & having Google Now on the home screen is very convenient. When traveling, glancing at how long it takes to reach home is nice. Google Now itself in India is at least 5x better than Siri. The offline voice recognition itself makes a ton of difference. Note that much of this functionality is available on iOS via the Google app, but somehow I never use that app much there. Having it front and centre makes it much more useful.
  • The Notification Centre is far better. Having icons in the Notification bar is super convenient. At a glance one can see if the notification must be read. And in addition, swiping to clear notifications & the super useful clear all button is nice to have. iOS also has actionable notifications now, but the Android implementation is far better, has more features and is much more refined.
  • Like the folders in the home screen better. While the iOS wiggling around animation is cute, the Android implementation feels faster & is more responsive and flexible to edit & reorganize.
  • Expandable storage is just 350 rupees for 8GB. The fact that Google seems to be encouraging Android to move away from external storage seems very weird to me. Maybe they can enforce or encourage class 10 SDs, but this is a major positive factor that I think Android shouldn't give up. I understand the arguments in favour of inbuilt storage, but it seems like the tradeoff is worth it, especially for the user audience.
  • This came as a surprise, but the thing I missed most when I switched back to the iPhone was the back button. The muscle memory associated with the back button isn't easy to forget :). While I think the Android navigation hierarchy is a mess ("Up caret anybody?"), having a dedicated back button is super convenient to navigate between apps. This is something that iOS hasn't ever tackled.

Now some niggles:

  • When I first clicked on the Date widget accidentally, I was a very confused person. Android UIs vary a ton from app to app, and most of them hide the status bar too.
  • The stock keyboard is much, much worse than the iOS one. It's uglier and doesn't work as well. The cut-copy-paste experience is also worse. I installed Fleksy which improves the situation a little bit.
  • There seems to be no way to scroll to the top of the list. On iOS you just tap the header. This was very jarring.
  • GPS is far slower and less reliable than iOS. Am not sure if it's even working. I've noticed this on many cheap Android phones. Seems ridiculous to ship a phone with a feature and not even ensure it's working.
  • The Google Camera app is way slower. I'm not commenting on the photo quality, just how the app works.
  • Contacts search does not seem to search notes, company name etc. This was a big issue for me because I am a stickler for proper first names and last names in my contact list & I often only remember the company name of the person I'm supposed to be speaking to.
  • This is phone-specific, but the Phone/Internal/External memory separation on the Micromax Unite 2 is a big hassle, and I needed to figure out things like rooting just so that I can delete some apps and install new ones. Somehow, this particular phone didn't allow me an option to install to the "Internal SD". This can obviously be solved by buying a Nexus or an Android One device.
  • The lack of a silent button was very jarring and I had to ask somebody how to turn the phone silent from the lock screen (you long press the power button). It's much more convenient on iPhone hardware though, and you can do it by feel.
  • There seems to be no standard emoji keyboard, and the one inbuilt looks crazy. WhatsApp has one inbuilt that looks nicer, but that's not what it displayed on the keyboard.
  • Again phone-specific, but there were lots of random slowdowns & jitter when installing apps.
  • Most third-party apps still look much worse than they do on the iPhone. I almost stopped tweeting because Twitter for Android looks & works like a piece of shit. WhatsApp wasn't much better, and even Facebook was slower. The iPhone apps are more refined, look much better and work much faster. The only apps which seem to be "okay" on Android were the ones from Google. I hope this will be solved by the Lollipop update & app makers switch over to the Material UI because I can never use an Android phone full-time for this reason. I need my apps to look consistent. Having said that, one app that I'm missing is MoneyView: a clever little app that read my SMS notifications from banks & compiled it into actionable finance information. Nothing like that is allowed on iOS.
  • The iOS animations in general seem much smoother and better. Apps also didn't seem to use many animations and were pretty boring.
  • iOS 8 adds Continuity and that's pretty much a killer feature set that Android doesn't have right now. If you use a Mac too, it's a bunch of useful stuff: picking up & making calls on my Mac (I use this a lot when working), SMS forwarding & App handoff. I tried a few Android solutions that require third-party additions and they don't work as well or at all.

That's it! I compiled these form notes that I jotted down every day. If you've used both Android & iOS, what do you think?

Two New Talks

Two new talks I gave recently. The first was as a guest speaker at an AWS 101 conference:

And the second one was one of my better talks on how to use some freely available tools for quick startup validation:

Talk at DTE, Kerala Event

This is a talk that I gave at an event organised by the Department of Technical Education in Thiruvananthapuram a couple of days ago. The audience was campus placement officers, and it was interesting talking to them about campus hiring & letting them know the startup viewpoint.

Author

Vishnu Gopal

Anime fanatic, Apple nerd, SciFi nut, hopeless romantic & CTO at MobME Wireless.