Have you heard about the Airtel controversy? It’s a relevant story in a much larger sense than it seems on the surface, because it presents an attempt on the part of a VoIP service or voice service providers to violate the concept of net neutrality.
Bharti Airtel is an Indian telecommunications company that operates in 19 countries across South Asia, Africa and the Channel Islands. Within the last week, the company announced its intention to begin charging 2G and 3G data subscribers additional fees for VoIP internet calls, which could get made via third party software devices like Viber or Skype. By charging the additional fee, the policy of net neutrality is broken, which could have far reaching ramifications.
Net neutrality, it should be pointed out, is not an enforceable law, so much as it is a widely shared concept that protects data subscribers from getting mercilessly nickeled and dimed for the ways in which they use data services. In other words, on a truly neutral data network, all information is treated the same way, regardless of its nature (pornography or education) or medium (video, still photography, text, music or voice services).
For the time being, the concept of net neutrality remains just that – an idea, albeit one that in largely embraced by the entire internet-using community. Recently, President Obama’s administration has indicated it would support making the concept into law, but it is still merely a proposal.
Meanwhile, Airtel has tabled it’s plans in the wake of public outcry. But it’s important to understand that by charging specialized rates for a particular sort of data stream, Airtel would have violated net neutrality. While it may not seem like a huge issue to let a telecom service provider charge a premium for a call service, it holds larger implications. By letting the company cross the line in this instance, the door is then open for other companies to do the same. Would it seem like as small an issue to you if your ISP began charging an additional fee to stream videos from YouTube? It’s a slippery slope, and could one day land us with an internet that is run much like cable television subscriptions, with different tiers of programming and charges that go with.
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