We are pretty sure not many would have even heard about Net Neutrality in India, but it’s high time that it becomes a hot discussion. Bharti Airtel, India’s largest telecom provider has silently started charging standard data rates for VoIP data usage on all Internet data packs and plans. This means Airtel subscribers who have subscribed for some 2G or 3G data packs will be charged additional rates when making VoIP calls.

As per the new data policy which is hidden under fine print,

All Internet/data packs or plans (through which customer can avail discounted rate) shall only be valid for internet browsing and will exclude VoIP (Both incoming/ Outgoing). VoIP over data connectivity would be charged at standard data rates of 4p / 10 KB (3G service) and 10p / 10 KB (2G service).

airtel-voice calls

Henceforth, customers will be charged at 4 paisa per 10KB on 3G and 10 paisa per 10KB on 2G when they make voice calls using services like Skype, Viber, Google Hangouts etc. WhatsApp is rumored to start providing free voice calling feature soon. Internet data includes voice data, video data and text data, but never before a carrier has dared to charge extra for one of the types alone.

Net Neutrality is a hot topic across the globe. In the US, there’s a proposal to provide fast-lanes for premium service providers like Netflix and Hulu who’ll be paying premium rates to the data providers in order to provide seamless service to their customers. US government including Barack Obama has voiced displeasure over such arrangements which puts Net Neutrality at stake.

What Airtel has done breaks the basic premise of Net Neutrality. It is true that voice calls take considerably higher bandwidth than text data, but it’s not like Indians pay dirt cheap prices for data. Instead of investing more on improving the infrastructure, one of the largest telecom carriers is indulging in dirty games. It’s not long before others like Vodafone, Idea and Aircel adapt a similar policy, unless TRAI jumps in. In the past we have seen that the carriers had proposed to charge connectivity fee for ‘Over-the-Top players’ like WhatsApp and Viber which was thrashed by TRAI. Instead, Airtel is charging the customers for the same.

What’s next? Charging extra for streaming music or watching YouTube videos? Mind you, VoIP calls in India is at a nascent stage, but video streaming has already picked up. This can only be a start to what we will see in the near future, unless curbed right away.

Update: We had reached out to Airtel and this is what they had to say –

We have made some revisions in the composition of our data packs, and will offer VoIP (Voice over internet protocol) connectivity through an independent pack that will be launched shortly. Our customers can continue enjoying voice calls over data connectivity by opting for this VoIP pack, or simply use VoIP services on pay-as-you-go basis.

Now this is interesting. They will have a separate data pack for voice calls. And what next? A separate data pack for video streaming? A separate data pack for music streaming? This is completely anti-net neutrality.

Update 2: Union Telecom minister, Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad has clarified that the government will look into the matter and will get back with a structured response.

Update 3: Airtel details its new VoIP exclusive Data plans.

Update 4: Airtel has rolled back the proposed VoIP plans as TRAI has set up a consultation to reign in OTT players.

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Raju is the founder-editor of Technology Personalized. A proud geek and an Internet freak, who is also a social networking enthusiast. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. Mail Raju PP. Follow rajupp