Why Airtel Threatens the Future of Tech in India

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Part 1 of this issue is blogged here.

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Back in the 70s when we were laying the telecom network in India, someone cheapened out. They laid the copper wires, but laid very poor quality copper – because we were a third world country at that point and telephones were a luxury. Years later when broadband came to the country, the same infrastructure became the bottleneck because the poor quality copper could not transmit more than 256kbps of data. The Govt had to make enormous investments in optic fibre to get internet access to most of the country.

Truth is, that infrastructure is still primitive. While countries like sweden and Hong Kong are talking about gigabit internet access, we are not able to go beyond 10 – 12Mbps. Airtel, in fact is the worst of them all, and is stuck at 8mbps for limited areas. Most of the locations are maxed out at 4mbps.

Wired connections are very expensive. And in a country where the population is very dense, installing of switches and constantly maintaining and upgrading them is a pain in the ass.

The future of broadband in this country is wireless. And how is it going to go wireless? It will most probably rely on 3G/4G and the future generations of mobile internet.

That’s why What Airtel is proposing is very dangerous. It means for the near forseeable future, and perhaps even into the generation of our children, they will control what we consume and how we consume. That is not acceptable. It makes it harder for service providers to enter into the market – you can see that even today, the middle east, thanks to its anarchy on throttling the internet has very little innovations and services built on top of it. You cannot build services without the operators blessing you.

This affects everything. App developers, Your television that is streaming content, Your chrome box, your messaging apps, video conferencing (as if it wasn’t too darn expensive already), online gaming – and in the future who is to stop these operators from saying that in order for Uber to operate and run on top of their network, Uber needs to pay them, or they will shut them down? They can do that.

The last time the operators had that much control in the name of walled gardens - the people who actually built the service got a pie of less than 30% where the rest was taken by these operators. And we haven't moved an inch further in mobile commerce, or mobile payments thanks to the politics each of them played against each other. The mobile industry grew in the blood of vendors. People like reliance were famous for saying publicly that they don't pay vendors - but thats a whole different story. Thankfully, the mobile platform opened up and app stores liberated developers, service providers and connected them directly to the consumers cutting out the fat boss in between.

There are services we haven’t even thought of yet. Think of the world of the internet of things. Or the future where cars are connected and can talk to each other. Airtel is setting a precedent where each and every one of these service will get blocked, penalized and charged extra for.
You could be signing on, to take a free course on coursera, but will have to buy the educational package.

It is not upto them to decide what rides on the network, and charge for it. TRAI wont – or rather cant – do much on this, because the agreement with the operators are broadly set as “can monetize voice and messaging services” and whether its voice via their own switches or voice via VoIP, they believe it gives them the right.

Net Neutrality and Privacy are very binary debates. Its a one way street – once you step in, there is no way to go back to a free and open internet, much of which has been the reason why the web thrives on innovation. As if India hasnt been set back by annoying statutory regulations, do startups and the technology community and the consumer at large need to be throttled further?

Air your view and make it heard. ‪#‎BoycottAirtel‬

I am collecting social signatures to send Airtel a message on Dec 30th, 2014. Please show your support and sign here : https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/20756-boycottairtel

 
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#boycottairtel for Breaking Net Neutrality

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A few days ago, Airtel one of the bigger Telecom operators in the country, decided to make the announcement that they will be charging additionally for VoIP traffic being generated on their network. Usage of Skype / Viber will be charged extra, above and beyond the data plan and data charges that you already pay.

While at a glance this looks okay, and as if its an operator trying to cope with lost revenue in voice calls, this is the first step in what is a dangerous road and stands against ensuring that there is free access to the internet in the future. In short, this is their first step towards breaking Net Neutrality.

There has been similar efforts in the US with the ISPs suggesting that they charge seperately and additionally for voice and video streaming, but that has been thwarted by the efforts of those who protested. It is now our part to do the same.

This is particularly dangerous for two reasons. Airtel is one of the few broadband license providers for Bangalore, which explains why if you are on any other network (vodafone for eg), your data network is simply erratic. Which means, there is simply no REAL option to switch to any other network either, which has good coverage. You are stuck with Airtel, and if you are silent now, it means you are LETTING THEM get away with this.(update: Tata Docomo, Reliance, Aircel, And BSNL also have licenses if you want to switch. However Airtel is the sole 4G/LTE provider in Bangalore. Reliance has a license but yet to commence operations). All circles have similar limitations.

Trivia: The well known and grudged Fair Usage Policy (FUP) on "unlimited" internet connections was a scheme that Airtel first rolled out. Sadly every broadband provider enforces it now.

Licenses have been issued based on circles which means, if all operators follow suit, there might not be REAL options for many.

This will not be the end. This is the start. Don’t be surprised if they soon start charging for Whatsapp and making hike (their own messenger) free of charge. It might follow with airtel launching their own video service and blocking youtube or charging extra for it. Streaming music services will get charged while Wynk is made excemptions for. If Airtel can get away with this, more is to follow – we are going back to the world of walled garden and God knows how badly that sucked, a decade ago. Soon there will be charges per apps (not for download or install, but for use), and the world of developers being able to freely and openly develop apps and deploy, will get restricted. And operators being the sole gatekeepers of what services runs on networks and also the custodian of the wallet and haggling over what service providers and developers should get. There was a time a few years back in the glorious days of VAS that less than 30% of the revenue was given to the person who built and ran the service. This cannot be. We cannot go back to that old world. That old world sucked and was only grown in the blood of vendors.

if you hold your silence, the rest of the operators will follow suit and if that goes on, why shouldnt your broadband operators start doing the same?

Airtel breaks two fundamental rights. Net Neutrality and the right to privacy by peeking into your data stream to enable variable pricing. If the terms set was for bandwidth and quantity of data and that is all that we agreed on. This is pushing the trend backwards.

The fight starts in Bangalore – which is our tech capital and if we permit this to happen in bangalore, the rest of the cities don’t stand a chance.

Do your part. The solution is to let your service provider know that you are not happy with them changing the terms and breaking global norms, when the whole world is moving towards an open internet and trying to make access a fundamental right.

Tweet, or post your disapproval, using the hashtag #boycottairtel. Let it trend, till they get the message. As a customer, that is our right to let them know. Silence, will cost us dearly.

Update: a conversation with a senior official at a regulatory body says that TRAI and the govt have issued license to the operators to operate and monetize voice and messaging services. Airtel considers a VoIP call as a voice call and if they identify it as a voice call, can monetize it (despite it not being the provider for the actual service). Bottomline, help is not coming from TRAI unless they amend the license. The bad news is, there is likely a similar call coming for Whatsapp and messaging services since messaging is part of their license provider agreement. That said, Airtel still has to depend on YOU the customer to keep the lights on. Make it count.

Here’s what you can do.

1. If you are on social media, use the hashtag #boycottairtel and air your views
2. If you want to send a stronger message type Port Mobile Number to 1900. Let them get the message that you are willing to move if they continue with this nonsense.

I am collecting social signatures to send Airtel a message on Dec 30th, 2014. Please show your support and sign here : https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/20756-boycottairtel

 
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Launching The Prototyping Guide

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As you know …

We started this initiative called In50hrs three years ago. Having seen more than 3000 participants attend, pitch their ideas, form teams and build prototypes – and with more than 10 years of experience working with startups, I am faced with one question over and over again – “Is there like a guide that one can follow, on prototyping their business idea?”

I kept saying No, but finally gave in and started putting one together. After a lot of iterations, thoughts, discussions and reading up, Voila!

Now there is : Sign up here

Please sign up. It is designed and put together like a course – with some examples, insights, and real stories of entrepreneurs in India. At the end there are a few questions that I’d like for you to try to answer each day. Think about it, and absorb it. You should get the notes in instalments spread a little over 30 days. And yes it is FREE.

Share with folks you know – if someone has been asking you the same question – or feel free to go through it yourself. And share.

Sharing makes everything better.

 
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What’s your #1 Resource?

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Most people who start up clearly recognize that they require resources. But often times when I ask them, what is it that they would want, they give one simple answer: Funding.

Capital, over the years have come to mean one thing – money, but in a more liberal form (and original context) capital refers to any asset that can generate value, and in return generate income – if you are an enterprise, then its money. If you are a social enterprise, then you can in turn use that wealth towards sustainability.

I’ve seen plenty of startups, and orgs (through our work with efforts like The Goa Project), where early founding teams spend an extra-ordinary amount of time, in the fundraising process, and then raise the money only to realize that execution is still a problem because the talent pool that they need onboard to execute their goals simply aren’t there. If they somehow manage the team, then they realize they lack the connections and the network to move fast enough.

It takes an inexplicably long(er) time in Emerging Markets (India is no exception) to build value.

And going by the formula above, the longer it takes to generate value, the longer it takes to create income. It all spirals down rather quickly.

I don’t know the answer to most of these things, and I am putting these out as I learn – since I’ve been in the centre of rather different kinds of orgs – partly by experimentation, be it building community centric efforts like Proto.in or The Goa Project, or by building hybrid orgs like The Startup Centre, or with the startups I work with. But one thing seems to be coming to the forefront quite clearly. If you have to opt between money or resources, choose resources. If you have to opt between people or money (say a large org will depute a very talented member to your team), that might be more valuable than money itself. What you trade for that, is a complicated question. Would love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

 
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