Centre for Internet & Society

In the ongoing debate about zero-rated plans and net neutrality, this blog post aims to study the possible effects of a survey conducted in Bangalore to gauge users' reactions towards such plans, and specifically "limited packs" offered by major telecom companies.

I would like to thank Amba Kak, on whose research the survey was conducted.

Zero­-rating is the practice of not counting (aka “zero­-rating”) certain traffic towards a subscriber’s regular Internet usage. There are different types of zero-rating that exist in the market.[1] For example, Facebook Free Basics or Internet.org as it was formerly known is a platform which provides limited content to subscribers, free of cost.[2] Airtel Zero is another such platform that provides free content to subscribers. Instead of charging these subscribers, the providers who choose to get on the platform are charged.[3]

Social media packs offered by major telecom companies are another variation of zero-rating. For a fraction of the price of regular data plans, users have access to apps like Facebook and Whatsapp. As per the Airtel website, a Whatsapp pack that allows 200 MB of Whatsapp for a month costs INR 46 in Karnataka.[4]

I conducted a small survey in Bangalore to determine the effects these limited social media packs have on users. I conducted interviews that were spread over five days in three different localities in Bangalore. I interviewed eight people and five recharge shops about their take on these limited packs.

I targeted two groups of users: new users of the Internet, and early adopters. The group of interviewees comprised of three university students, two shopkeepers, and three watchmen. I also talked to recharge shops in the neighbourhoods of the interviewees.

Through my research, I wanted to understand how users reacted to these social media packs, and gauge the popularity of these packs. This is where feedback from recharge shops would have been useful, however, what was surprising was that none of the shops I talked to offered these plans. Two out of the five shops had not even heard of Facebook or Whatsapp packs.

The fact that recharge shops did not offer these services made it difficult to identify subscribers of limited packs. I instead decided to talk to users of mobile internet, and discern their interest towards such packs. My questions followed a specific format: I’d find out which service provider the user subscribed to, their billing structure, their internet browsing patterns, whether they had heard of limited packs, and their interest towards such packs. Out of the people I interviewed, only three expressed interest towards these packs, Whatsapp in particular. For two of them, Whatsapp was the only service they used on their phones, and a Whatsapp pack seemed more useful to them than a regular data pack.

I also wanted to find out how much of an effect price played on the users while they chose a data plan. Even though a limited pack is substantially cheaper than a regular[5] data plan, six out of the eight users said they would choose an all-access data pack. Three of these six users expressed wariness towards such plans as they found the billing structures confusing. They were nervous about the possibility of being charged unfairly high rates in the accidental case of accessing services that were not provided by the limited packs. Further, three of the others were of the opinion than a regular data pack with full access to the internet was preferable to the limited access services provided by these packs.

From these interviews, one can assume that knowledge of these limited packs is low among both users and recharge shops, and the takers for the same are minimal. It would be hasty to jump to the conclusions from this admittedly anecdotal evidence, keeping in mind the small pool of interviewees, but it raises interesting questions with no easy answers: how great a factor is price for the users while choosing limited packs over regular internet packs? Perhaps more importantly, do these packs confine users to the walled garden, or will they venture out of it in order to access the whole Internet? [6]

My findings explore a tiny proportion of what users think about these plans. However, there is a long way to go for policy and regulation decisions.

[1]. The Background Paper to CIS Submission for TRAI Consultation on Regulatory Framework for OTT Services which can be found here: http://trai.gov.in/comments/24-April/Attachments-75/2015-04-24_CIS-background-paper_Net-neutrality.pdf

[2]. Facebook, Reliance Communications launch Internet.org in India by Nimish Sawant for Firstpost

[3]. Airtel Offers Customers Free Access to Select Apps With 'Airtel Zero'

[4]. The tariff rates can be found here.

[5]. For example, an Airtel Whatsapp pack is less than half the price of a one month 2G connection

[6]. Zero for Conduct by Susan Crawford for Backchannel

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