Business Today

The Net-net of Neutrality

While net neutrality cannot be challenged in spirit, there may be an opportunity for transparent data reverse charging for enterprise and business users.

Ambarish Chaudhari        Last Updated: April 25, 2015  | 17:54 IST

Ambarish Chaudhari, CTO and Co-Founder, Node Technologies
The recent debate on zero charging and net neutrality has polarised views in such a manner, that it has become increasingly difficult to open an argument in favour or against any position without facing flak. But a reasoned debate demands that analogies, examples, proof and practice are evaluated dispassionately to arrive at a balanced conclusion.

Everybody who has used a phone knows what a call collect number, such as the 1-800 series, means - that the called party pays. Sellers and employers gladly pay the premium, which is far outweighed by the benefits of a sale or service or increased participation in the case of employers. For years, telecom operators have had differential data offerings: internet access and value-added services, example, "Airtel Live", mostly fulfilled by the third party. But internet users the world over have outrightly rejected the free-of-charge "walled gardens" for the open meadows of free-in-spirit internet access.

Platforms like Facebook's 'Internet.org' or Airtel's 'Zero plan' are similar walled gardens, with a seemingly different objective: additional eyeballs for internet services and in turn, data revenue for telecom operators from a part of their subscriber base that could not have afforded internet access otherwise.

Internet, like a phone call, is a basic right which cannot be controlled. However, it may certainly be facilitated by third parties. Some fear that the flip side of this could be large internet companies buying exclusive rights, thwarting young start-ups from challenging their monopoly. This has further been muddied with TRAI's complex and unrelated questionnaire asking for opinions on the need to regulate internet application providers such as Skype and WhatsApp. There are concerns that zero charging will eventually lead to consumers having to buy app-specific packs to access them on their regular internet subscriptions.

If true, this would clearly be intolerable. But with a large, competitive market full of choices on broadband and mobile Internet subscriptions and our jugaad genes to back us, a nexus of all big telecom and Internet companies holding us all at ransom seems rather unlikely.

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Be as it may, while this debate rages, there is one aspect that is being overlooked. That is, if we view this free data access offer from an enterprise perspective, the conclusions can be quite different. Today, a mobile phone is the most affordable connected personal computer available. Large and small enterprises are targeting this personal device to roll out operational software solutions, replacing their employee's rigorous routine of paper notes, evening commute to office and data entry using a shared computer.

Eerily enough, a few months ago, we had written in a leading business daily about the changing landscape of enterprise applications in the "mobile first" era and how telecom companies can respond, urging them to extend their sophisticated data billing capabilities to enterprise application providers, much like toll-free numbers. This would free employees from paying for job-related data charges and employers from having to manage large number of mobile subscriptions for their workforce, which reports a high turnover rate.

Therefore, while fighting the lacklustre uptake and activism of the vigilant netizens, operators must not forget that there in fact is a real opportunity with enterprises and business users by enabling data reverse charging transparently and as an add on to the current Internet offerings, much like the toll-free numbers.

(The author is CTO & Co-Founder, Node Technologies)

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