Zuckerberg's Internet.org is unfair: Facebook founder's pet project faces ire from Airtel, Vodafone

At the Mobile World Congress, telecom service providers such as Vodafone, Airtel and Telenor have made their discomfort clear when it comes to offering free internet services over expensive telecom networks.

Internet.org is Facebook's initiative of offering free internet services for apps and services which have partnered with Facebook and various service providers.

In India Facebook has tied up with Reliance Communications in an effort to bring Internet.org to smartphone as well as feature phone users. But at the Mobile World Congress, telecom service providers such as Vodafone, Airtel and Telenor have made their discomfort clear when it comes to offering free Internet services over expensive telecom networks.

According to a report in The Times of India, there was a disagreement between Zuckerberg and a lot of telcos regarding distribution of free internet services at the Mobile World Congress (MWC). The main bone of contention is the billions of dollars worth of investment made by telcos for spectrum acquisition and increasing cellphone tower reach. The main argument leveled by telcos present at the event is that Zuckerberg is serving his own personal business interests by providing free internet access over telecom networks.

At his MWC keynote, Zuckerberg had said, "Our mission is to help people connect. This will help people stay close to their loved ones, and get access to services like health and education."Internet.org which is available to smartphone as well as feature phone users, does succeed to an extent on that front as it offers free internet services if you are a Reliance Communications subscriber (in India). At the moment, only 33 websites and services are available to users. The bouquet of services span across genres having a healthy mix of news websites such as BBC News, IBNLive, Times of India; educational services such as Wikipedia, Translator, wikiHow; sports websites; Health and welfare services such as BabyCentre, iLearn, Socialblood and so on.

Vodafone chief Vittorio Colao was quoted as saying that Internet.org wasn't fair. "It is almost like Zuckerberg does philanthrophy, but with my money," he said. Considering Facebook hasn't partnered with Vodafone, it is not clear what Colao means when he says 'with my money'. One can only assume he is referring to the potential loss of customers who may be opting for free internet.org over Vodafone data plans.

Airtel's Sunil Mittal was also said to have had dinner with Zuckerberg, but had not been impressed with the Facebook founder's idea of offering free internet calls. This is quite interesting, considering Airtel is the telco Facebook has partnered with in Zambia for internet.org.

That Facebook's Internet.org programme is in clear violation of the concept of net neutrality, which believes in equal access to all services to everyone, is already under debate. When doing our hands on with the Internet.org website,under the social media section we just saw Facebook, which left out other social media services such as Twitter or Google+.

Even within Facebook, you could only read status messages, like and comment. If you wanted to view photographs on Facebook, you were prompted to buy one of the many plans offered by Reliance Communications. The very concept of having a limited number of partners or web services, immediately puts competing services or apps at a disadvantage.

Telcos on the other hand are already facing pressure thanks to messaging and VoIP calling apps which have hit their SMS and call revenues. Opposing free internet on a telecom network, is a natural progression for them. Not long ago, Airtel had come out with a circular to have a separate data plan for VoIP calling, but later retracted it. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is supposed to release a consultation paper on issues relating to services offered by OTT (over the top content) players including VoIP services.

As far as India is concerned, it is still early days as far as Internet.org is concerned as it was just launched last month. Telcos other than Reliance Communications might face issues in rural areas where users might just opt for free internet plans using internet.org. The net neutrality debate will keep rearing its head because as philanthrophic as it may sound, there is no denying the fact that Facebook will get more users thanks to Internet.org.

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