Zero rating? Zero chance says Vodafone India

Concerns about the threat to net neutrality and choice lead to investigation

Poor people in India queue for a political party-sponsored medical check. Pic: Welfare Party of India

Vodafone India, country’s second-biggest mobile operator, has announced it will hold off offering zero-rated services amid a fierce political argument about the practice.

Zero-rated services are offered to customers when an online service provider, such as Facebook, Spotify or, in the Indian case Flipkart, does a deal with the telco provider to pay for the services at source, so customers receive them for free.

Those opposed to the practice say it favours big players and effectively forces smaller organisations or start-ups out of the market. There are also concerns that it breaches net neutrality rules.

In Europe, The Netherlands and Slovenia have outlawed zero rating because of the dramatic effect it has on consumption patterns. Some opponents have gone so far as to say it removes real choice from users.

The furore over the offering from Bharti Airtel and Flipkart in India was so great that the plan has been abandoned.

Even Mark Zuckerberg has been dragged into the argument, as Facebook’s Internet.org started offering its services free to RCom customers in India in February.

The Social Network pays RCom, so users receive AccuWeather, Dictionary.com and, of course, Facebook for free. Zuckerberg says this is part of a wider philanthropic aim to get more underprivileged communities online.

India’s telecom regulator Trai and the Department of Telecom (DoT) have set up a panel to examine the ramifications of zero rating and the country may yet outlaw the practice.

In the EU, talks on the so-called Telecoms Package are ongoing, with the new draft laws looking very unlike the original European Commission proposals. As national ministers argue bitterly over the issue of net neutrality, zero rating practices may yet get pulled into the debate. ®

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