What’s wrong with Airtel Zero and Internet.org

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I’ve been getting a lot of folks asking me why Airtel Zero is a bad idea and why it goes against Net Neutrality.

Most folks actually believe it is an innovation by the operators and those of us in the camp asking for NetNeutrality are trying to thwart it. Well, Im hoping a slightly different perspective would help.

In order to understand netneutrality, there is something that we all must understand well – which is the notion of commons. There are certain things, assets and infrastructure that belongs to everyone. Weather is one. The way we handle minerals and natural resources is another. The air we breathe is another – these are things where the decisions and activities of one, could affect everyone and as such requires high levels of regulation in order to keep it as a common asset.

Failure to do so, usually results in folks benefitting disproportionately from the same and using that to suppress access to what was once, something that belonged to everyone.

So in an effort to make Why Airtel Zero and Internet.org violate Net Neutrality, let me explain it with a common example. Roads and toll gates. Take a well known road – if you are in delhi, take the gurgaon toll for example and assume that one day the toll gate guy realized that he wanted to go public and needed a business model that would show “growth” in revenue without substantially doing anything more on the services he was providing – having a toll, maintaining the road and collecting the cash. So he figures, there is a smart thing one can do – switch the model from being B2C (which is consumer focused and consumer focused businesses are always over a period of time lowering in cost and becoming commodities) to being B2B. How does one do that?

Well, look at the companies that are setup in Gurgaon, and go to them and offer that there is a plan that they can let their employees go to and fro via the tolls as many times as they want, as long as the companies pay the toll. And since they are businesses, they pay a slight premium. anything to enterprises are higher priced than to consumers.

Lets assume a few companies take this up. Soon enough word gets around, the people commuting and having to pass through the toll start using that as an excuse to switch companies. It starts showing up in Exit interviews that the present company doesnt offer free toll passes, whereas the new company does.

Once it gets to this, the junta follows. Every HR manager gets on the call to said toll gate company to ask how they can too enlist. Toll guy now has the upper hand, and can auction, bid or negotiate rates as they see fit. it might have cost the individuals Rs. 40 to pass through, but tollgate company can now ask for a fixed upfront fee as they see demand (and fit).

What do companies that are on the stretch who cant afford the toll do? They would either have to get along with the plan, or they have to find another destination where they can setup their offices – most probably closer to the city where there is no commute, or in a remote place but the cost of setting up and luring talent there is going to be a headache. Good luck to you on that.

This is the danger with Airtel Zero and Internet.org. Airtel Zero and Internet.org are the network equivalent of Justdial. And just as keywords are given out for bids, Airtel and Reliance will shamelessly set on auction the traffic that they get. And that messes up the environment for everyone. Costs go up, entry to barriers are built and the internet is no longer the open innovation platform that we all started off with.

This is when we come back to what we started off with. But isnt this something that is an “Innovation” by telecom operators? Well, no. because the Internet is not upto them to sell in pieces to anyone. The Internet doesnt belong to the operators, or to the government. It belongs to everyone globally and that is the reason why it is what it is. The Internet is a “common good” and that’s why this is an issue.

If you still cant wrap your head around this, imagine someone selling you access to breathing air, and the implications of it because they have every incentive to pollute to sell more, premium air.

Im reminded that this isnt a war and battle that started recently. Microsoft wanted to create an alternate gateway to the internet called Mozaic. And Mozilla was created to create an open internet free from the platform being commercialized. Mozilla was a short hand for “Mozaic Killer” and if you think I am making this up, type about:firefox in your Firefox browser. And read the manifesto.

I’m all for innovation. And operators SHOULD innovate. But slicing and dicing what belongs to everyone and serving it in a platter and calling it innovation, and overcharging, and restricting access – is not it.

Additional Notes:

A lot of folks are making the case as to why “Free” Internet will be good for Rural India.

1. Somehow, this whole empathetic view of rural India scares me. It verges in the same lines as how we see development and the debate on aid vs enabling. If rural india saw the opportunity to make a living (either by listing as a merchant or saving money by buying on for eg FK), wouldn’t they do it on their own?

2. Someone with vested interests giving away a “utility” for free, also taints it. Its like Monsanto saying they are going to give away FREE seeds to farmers. It is a small cost, but we also know how that plays into the mindset of emerging markets that they never see anything beyond that and it becomes the prerogative and entry barrier to startups and other players who can’t or don’t want to offer FREE data access.

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How Ecosystems Evolve

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Ecosystems evolve in stages.

All ecosystems need three fundamental ingredients – People, Entities and Ideas. A lot of folks would say governments need to get involved, but the only thing that Governments know how to do right is by enacting policies. Early on when the ecosystems are just emerging, and there are not enough trends to define policies by, if you get the government prematurely engaged, you will end up with a lot of policies that dont reflect ground reality – or worse reflect the interests of someone trying to capitalize on an emerging ecosystem.

Governments are at best the environments in which these three elements work under, and early on when the ecosystem is emerging, its best if the government simply stays out of it.
Ecosystems evolve over time. The way to guage the stage of an ecosystem is by the calibre and quality of ideas and solutions that it churns. Most folks are rather upset about an emerging ecosystem like India, because they claim that there are fewer original ideas. I’d have to agree, but you are also looking for a bride when its just a teenager.

Ecosystems go through stages of admiration, appreciation, imitation, adaptation, experimentation and finally originality. When it comes to the startup or business side of things, we are a mix of imitation and adaption at this stage. We aren’t overwhelmed by imitation as we were a few years back, but we aren’t quite original with our ideas either. The fact that an Ola is more rugged than Uber (the global counterpart) is proof of that statement. We are getting better and better at adapting better, relevant solutions to the local problem. Which is also the reason why local successes will be great acquisition targets by the global counterparts.

That said, there are other creative sectors – such as writing, where the progression is far along – there is a lot of experimentation and even emergence of originality there. Our development model still is very much in the appreciation and imitation phase. Equality as a concept is mire admiration and appreciation – we are nowhere close to implementing anything.

You’ll notice that what began as a discussion about creativity, has seeped right into civil issues and how we perceive development of the society. Thats because you cant seperate “mindset” from where creativity grows. While we do compartmentalize different aspects – we are still evolving – further along than we think, but still a long way to go.

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Do More (with less)

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Learn to do more with less. It is very easy to raise your first small round of funding these days, but a funded startup also has very high expectations to meet to get the next round of funding. Set bad habits by paying too much, or spending vicariously, and you wont be able to keep up that culture when the going gets tough and everything falls apart.

The rule is simple – if you start something, you have to consistently keep it going. You get brownies for everyone in office on tuesdays, find a way to keep it going till the end of time. One week when the brownie doesnt show, everyone knows what’s happening – “cost cutting” and thats bad for morale.

So be very careful about what you start off.

If you keep your burn rate low – applies for your startup, applies for your own life as well – it is amazing freedom, and it will keep you alive during the lean days. I have a burn rate of about 28K – 30K a month on the personal front – that’s it. And a good chunk of that is rent on my apartment. You would not believe the kind of freedom that gives you. I could quit my job when i wanted to and start up The Startup Centre. I can take a month off and go on vacation (if i want to) as long as i can cover that amount, and that is fairly easy.

My mentor told me that learning how to bring something to profitability, starts with your own personal finances. How you handle your own life, will reflect when you dare for the grandiose things, in ways that would surprise you.

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#NetNeutrality, the fight is still on

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The Media reports that Airtel, the (not-so-friendly) giant who planned to roll out additional charges on VoIP (Skype/Viber) calls, made via already paid Data Plans has rolled back. Its good news, but the battle is just half-won.

India has a history of battles half won. Take the case of Kashmir, the case with Pakistan, the case of China, we somehow retreat when we sight success and the enemy recedes for the time being, arms and comes back and takes away half of our spoils and will end up being a thorn in our flesh for generations to come. Net Neutrality is not a war we need to fight for the time being, it is a fundamental policy that we need to have in place to ensure that innovation is now thwarted and that India stands a chance to play its game in the global economy that is blooming.

The case of operators not wanting to be just a dumb pipe but wanting to charge more for content that flows through them has taken many avatars. This is not their first, and this will not be their last. But as a consumer, and among those who are building the ecosystem to ensure future of technology in Country, we need to put the last nail on this coffin. Once and for all.

There were a couple of incidents that popped up while this issue raged. TRAI Chairman made a claim that Net Neutrality was not their concern. What is happening in the US – on a very similar battle – is that the FCC is relooking at Net Neutrality and trying to frame the policy around the same, however those who are dictating the terms are from the same lobby who are trying to get it appealed. You can understand the irony in that. The wolves can’t guard the sheep, let alone if they are allowed to dictate the terms on if the wolves can eat the sheep or not. We know how skewed the rules on that would be. We aren’t sheep. They need to get that message clear.

The spectrum upon which operators operate, are a public good. When it was licensed to them, it is us as citizens who have given them the right to operate on it, and make a profit, but as citizens we have the right to retaliate when they use what is rightfully ours, and are licensed, against us to fuel greed (not sustainability).

TRAI is going to put together a policy framework towards Net Neutrality and we have to ensure that we have a say in it. This cannot be a battle half-won. It has to be done right, so that for the near forseeable future we dont have to fight this battle over and over and over again. We do not want the equivalent of internet terrorists backed by greedy incumbents who jeopardize the freedom and openness of the web.

We are going to shift our focus on TRAI, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Keep the fight on. We need to end this right, not half-way.

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

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