Hyderabad / New Delhi: Over the past few weeks, all those paying for unlimited broadband Internet connection—be it to watch movies in the comfort of their homes using services such as BigFlix or to call friends abroad using Skype—were in for a rude shock, with leading Internet service providers, or ISPs, in India sneaking in fine print under the name “fair usage” seeking to limit the “unlimited”.
Bharti Airtel Ltd and Tata Communications Internet Services Ltd, or TCISL, in February adopted a so-called fair usage policy, or FUP, as part of the terms and conditions that govern the use of broadband Internet which puts data caps or download restrictions on unlimited plans.
Another broadband service provider, Sify Ltd, recently indicated to the country’s telecom regulator that it too favours limiting unlimited plans.
As per this new usage policy, even those Airtel or Tata customers who have subscribed to an “unlimited Internet plan” will be subjected to restricted Internet usage. Through its FUP, Airtel, for instance, has “defined fair usage levels for unlimited data transfer plans” and “on reaching the fair usage level, the plan speed would be rationalized by up to 50% for the rest of the monthly billing cycle”.
This means that in the 256 kilobytes per second (kbps) connection, where Airtel has a download limit of 50GB, once this limit is reached, it halves the speed to 128kbps.
For Tata, after the billing cycle is over, it informs subscribers that the predefined limit has been hit and they must move to a higher plan or the service would be terminated.
Such policies, adopted by service providers in early February, have caused a stir among the user community and in the online world.
In the case of TCISL, data transfer in excess of the “fair usage limit” shall be treated as a violation, and if the customer refuses to move up to a different, usually more expensive, plan having download limits, the service provider reserves the right to suspend or terminate the account of such “violating” users.
Airtel’s policy has created a flurry of activity among bloggers and on Airtel’s online user forums, including on Facebook, the popular social networking site. Protesting the change in policy, at least 2,000 Airtel broadband customers have signed up in less than a week for an online petition at the India Broadband Forum, a forum that tracks developments in the broadband scene.
An online petition addressed to Airtel chairman and managing director Sunil Bharti Mittal says: “We feel that this policy under the garb of ‘fair usage’ seeks to essentially place limits on ‘unlimited’ plans... We feel that this is a regressive move towards Internet usage in India.”
An India Broadband Forum (IBF) spokesperson said the issue is not just about restriction of download limits but a more pervasive one concerning what is known as net neutrality. “The broader implications are that it allows ISPs to control access to the Internet. Today, it will be about how much you can download. Tomorrow, it will be about what sites you can access and what you cannot (also called net neutrality),” forum spokesperson Vaibhav Kumar said.
An Airtel spokesperson said the firm is merely following globally accepted practices by ISPs. “FUP is an internationally accepted norm among the global broadband operators. We have observed that a few of our customers have been using an excessive amount of bandwidth, thus impairing the browsing experience of an overwhelming majority.”
TCISL chief operating officer Prateek Pashine said, “We have defined limits based on the average usage of a user that we have estimated, and if a subscriber goes beyond those limits, then we would ask him to upgrade to a higher plan. If he does not, then we retain the right to terminate the services... This does not impact the usage of 99% of our around 250,000 subscribers.”
“While the Net is supposed to be neutral and allow for equal access to all, there is a cost (attached) to it. Forcing people to move to a higher plan due to higher usage is not the correct way to do it,” said Romal Shetty, director at global advisory and consulting firm KPMG.
“In India, voice has gained a huge amount of popularity but data have not really been a big success or created that much traction. The strategy should be to get more people hooked on to it. When the firms set their pricing, they expected a certain amount of volumes and since they have not got that, they are making people move to higher plans or are reducing the access for the remainder of the billing cycle,” Shetty said.
Meanwhile, industry body Internet Service Providers Association of India (Ispai), of which Airtel is a member, said ISPs should follow regulatory guidelines while bringing in new measures. About the controversy surrounding the new FUPs being adopted by service providers, Ispai president Rajesh Chharia said, “Service providers should follow the guidelines set by regulatory authorities and ensure that the customers’ experience as per Trai (the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) guidelines are not compromised.”
Internet and Mobile Association of India president Subho Ray said, “If the service is provided under ‘broadband’ to the customers when they signed in, it cannot be reduced to 128 (kbps) since the government of India definition of broadband is minimum 256 (kbps). This is a violation of government policy as well as short-changing customers if they had signed in for a broadband service.”
Besides user experience issues, the online petitioners say this could be a bad sign for broadband penetration in India. “…policies such as the FUP allow ISPs to curb their traffic rather than upgrade their own infrastructure and bandwidth, which in the end is profitable for the ISPs but highly regressive towards the spread and usage of the Internet in India,” Kumar said.
A Reliance Communications Ltd spokesperson said: “Our unlimited plans offer unlimited downloads without any restrictions.”
State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd didn’t respond to request for comment.