By all reports, 2014 was beginning to look like a great year for the startup market, particularly in India. SoftBank was showing the region a great deal of affection, investors were feeling downright peppy about the chances of realizing success with Indian startups, and it even became something of a common sentiment that $30 million was the “new investment benchmark.” With a new startup fund in play, and other developments in tow, it was looking like 2014 would end smoothly and allow most to coast into 2015 with optimism and good feeling all around. That is, of course, until Airtel dropped a bombshell on the market that shook up everyone concerned.
Specifically, what happened was that Airtel (News - Alert) released plans to charge a premium for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services on the network. Airtel likely saw a lot of the same handwriting on the wall that AT&T (News - Alert)'s CEO Randall Stephenson noted back in 2012, in which he reportedly expressed belief that, eventually, there would be no more voice plans, but rather data plans alone. But that's a shakeup that might hit such businesses a little too close to home, and therefore, is the kind of thing some businesses are actively working against. Indeed, a 2013 report from Point Topic noted that subscriber bases for VoIP services increased an average of 2.5 percent when measured quarter-to-quarter
But Airtel wanted to charge a set of additional fees to services known as over-the-top (OTT) services like Skype (News - Alert) and Viber, among a slate of others, and a proposal was put before the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in a bid to make that happen. TRAI reportedly rejected a similar proposal, but this didn't seem to have an impact on Airtel's decision-making processes, and it went forth considering the idea at the end of 2014.
This recent issue is actually part of a wider scale of changes in the Indian telecom industry going back to the so-called New Telecom Policy '99, which was particularly focused on the consumer and wanted to allow all technologies into the field specifically for consumer use. However, Internet telephony had been strictly banned back then, until about 2002 when Internet service providers (ISPs) were allowed to if said ISPs signed the new Internet Service Provider License. Not surprisingly, it's also being used as ammunition to help drive the push toward net neutrality, the principle by which all data—be it video, voice, or text—should be treated identically with no preference given to one kind over another.
Net neutrality is in general a great idea, because it allows consumers the greatest access to the greatest content, but what it does somewhat fail to acknowledge is the limited nature of bandwidth as we know it. Bandwidth (News - Alert) has its limits, particularly when it's mobile, and a good chunk of the Indian market is running on mobile right now. So while we want access to content and technologies, the network needs to build out and be sufficiently robust to handle that kind of access. That's not a simple or inexpensive process, and thus some resistance might be expected from ISPs.
Still, it's clear that net neutrality is not only an issue in the United States, but most anywhere else the Internet reaches. With so much of our lives going to the Internet, it's equally clear that the decisions about data and its relevance must be reached, with all parties kept in mind.
Edited by Alisen Downey