Mr. CEO, your email is stupid and guess how many it fooled? ZERO!

The CEO of Airtel, Mr. Gopal Vittal, has sent an email to the subscriber base of Airtel’s services. The subject of the email says “Misconceptions about Airtel Zero”. This email isn’t noteworthy; it might even be the most half-witted email, in the history of email, written by a public company CEO ever. It definitely doesn't deserve to be spoken about or written about on a blog. However, I am writing one, since it accuses me and thousands of others- who have voiced their concerns and even protested the launch of an evil of a service that Airtel Zero is- of deliberately misleading people.

I’d not waste your time or mine, by rebutting point by point to the 5-bullet-point-email. I am just going to rip apart two of their fundamental arguments (in the email):

1. (Not) Bringing Internet to Everyone

“Our vision is to have every Indian on the internet. There are millions of Indians who think that the internet is expensive and do not know what it can do for them. We believe that every Indian has the right to be on the internet. We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the internet they will join the digital revolution.”

What Airtel Zero promises to bring is nothing close to what ‘internet’ really is; neither in technological terms, nor in humanitarian:

A. In technological terms:

‘Internet’, in the simplest terms, is a global network of computers, which allows communication and free exchange of information between each other. Anything short of that, isn’t really internet, not even closely.

Airtel Zero will allow it’s subscribers to use only those services for free, which are paying Airtel; which means, the majority of the network won’t be accessible for free. How can they call that internet?

Maybe they are not, which is why, in the email Airtel’s CEO has mentioned ‘joys’ of the internet and not really the ‘internet’.

B. In humanitarian terms:

Internet has proven to be incredibly powerful and useful to the human cause of uplifting lives of the 7 billion people we share planet earth with. While there are a million reasons why internet is a good force for the humanity, I have mentioned two:

i. It democratizes access to information.

A student from the most rural part of the world can have access to the same knowledge that the most expensive school in the world has to share.

ii. It empowers people to build communities over distances.

Communities are powerful. They have helped frame laws that shape a nation’s future, bring down tyrant regimes, or simply come together to build better and stronger societies.

Without the outcomes like the ones aforementioned, the internet ceases to be as magical, or as bright a light of hope for humanity.

Internet ceases to be itself.

Airtel Zero curtails the chances of these outcomes by demolishing the conditions which resulted in the success of the internet. A couple of the conditions are mentioned below:

i. Everyday new websites and mobile applications are launched- one better, more useful and more personalized than the other- in the open, free internet. Which is possible because creating and distributing these applications and websites have become easy and inexpensive. The smallest company or the poorest developer has a chance to change the world, literally, when they are in a level-playing field.

ii. Since internet is limitless, you can choose the platform you want to be heard on, the websites you want to read, the applications you want to use, utterly uninfluenced by any consideration, financial or otherwise.

But the subscribers of Airtel Zero are not going to be as lucky as you are. Their realization of the internet is going to be restricted by their convenience to not pay.

Clearly, two types of users would like to opt for Airtel Zero:

a. Those who can’t afford.

If the impact of human triumphs are measured, one day, Internet will rank higher than Democracy. In a democracy, the value of the vote of the poorest of poor is no less than the richest of rich, therefore, as a society we must do everything at our peril to ensure we give our people, who are less than privileged, the same freedom that we enjoy.

b. Those who haven’t seen/realized the value yet.

They need to experience internet more if they are to see the benefits. In more ways than one, Airtel’s handpicked ‘joys’ is counter-productive.

If we allowed ISPs to sell something in the name of the internet, which isn’t internet, millions of people of this country, the youth especially, will be cheated- they will unknowingly take the free rides to limited destinations, thus limiting their imagination of what internet really is; consequently, an imbalance in demand and supply will happen, which will lead to the undoing of the online services, who are unwilling to pay.

2. Comparison of Airtel Zero with Toll-Free Service:

The fourth point and the second fundamental argument of the email says:

There is no difference between this and toll free voice such as 1–800. When a company selling an insurance product enrolls into the toll free voice platform, customers who call the number are not charged but when they call a normal number they are charged. Calls are not blocked or given preferential treatment else our whole business would be jeopardized. Toll free voice helps the business owner engage with their customer. At the same time it provides the customer the benefit of reaching the business for free. Toll free voice is not a product or a tariff plan, it is merely a technology platform. We are simply taking the same concept of toll free voice to the world of data. As a result it is for the application developer and their customer to decide how data charges will be paid for. If the application developer is on the platform they pay for the data and their customer does not. If the developer is not on the platform the customer pays for data as they do now. Companies are free to choose whether they want to be on the platform or not. This does not change access to the content in any way whatsoever. Customers are free to choose which web site they want to visit, whether it is toll free or not. If they visit a toll free site they are not charged for data. If they visit any other site normal data charges apply.”

Voice & Internet Comparison

Internet and telephone are not of the same generation. Internet is a much more evolved form of communication. The number of use cases of the internet is infinitely higher than that of telephone. Comparing internet with telephone is like comparing calculators with computers. It is utterly ridiculous that the business model of voice should apply to data as well.

Death of Voice

Even if we were to entertain this argument, it is still flawed. Here’s why:

For all we know, in a few years, we will not require to make telephone calls at all. We are already seeing the changes. Do you use SMS? I can’t remember when I last sent one. Heck, I don’t even like to call or receive calls. Between, email, whatsapp, iMessage, Skype and Facetime, my communication needs are covered.

Toll free will become obsolete. Because calling anyone is free anyways, once you are subscribed to a data plan. Then basically, what Airtel is saying is they are creating a new business model bench-marking on one, that is obsolete, or going to be soon. How does that make sense?

Toll-Free wasn’t a bait.

Well, let us still consider Airtel’s comparison for a moment.

How many people subscribed to a telephone service because they wanted to connect with businesses for free? None. People got a telephone, because they wanted to stay connected with their family, friends, customers and prospects. It goes on to prove that their need to call a toll-free number for free has no relation to their need to pay to call. The why did Airtel say that it’s Zero-rating service is to help bring more Indians online?

Furthermore, telephones are one to one communication tool, whereas internet has enabled us to speak to the whole world. It is an extension of our freedom to express and will continue to become more prominent in our lives. Therefore any law, or business model that stifles with our freedom to express must be squashed to death right at it’s inception.

Conclusion:

Airtel’s fundamental argument in defense of their Zero Rating service is they are helping more Indians experience the “joys” of internet; which I have more than adequately proven is not internet at all. They want to sell their walled-garden of ‘joys’ which they have hand picked based on who has paid them, in the name of internet to the youth of this country; which I can’t define in any other term than cheating.

Their second main argument that Zero Rating service is same as the Toll-Free services and therefore there is nothing wrong in it is also profoundly void. Not only internet and telephone are inventions of different times, their uses cases are different, their influence in the lives of the people are different and therefore the same business model or regulations are not be applicable.

I hope wisdom prevails upon the management of Aitel and they become more responsible.

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