The rivalry between telcos in India took a surprising turn on Tuesday, when Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular teamed up to accuse Reliance Industries' JioPhone of violating net neutrality.
The discussion forum hosted by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) gave Airtel and Idea Cellular the platform to present their views about telcos offering SIM-locked phones with limited access to apps under a certain tariff plan. There wasn't a direct reference to Reliance's JioPhone, but it was quite obvious.
"Today, there are network providers who are offering devices also in a bundled case, in a way you're not giving the customer the choice, or you are in some sense influencing his choice to have a device which is restricting. Can that be a case (of net neutrality violation)?" TRAI chairman RS Sharma questioned stakeholders during Tuesday's gathering of carriers, content providers, analysts, internet search engines and consumer activist groups, the Economic Times reported.
Bharti Airtel, which is Jio's biggest competitor in India, said customers should have the freedom to choose between adding or deleting an application on the phone. "This should be a free choice for the customer who can use the device wherever he wants to, otherwise it is equivalent to blocking, which is a more serious issue than throttling," said Ravi Gandhi, head of regulatory affairs at Bharti Airtel.
Idea Cellular's chief corporate affairs officer Rajat Mukherjee backed Airtel, adding that limiting user's ability to install or uninstall an app is "clearly discriminatory." The carriers are seeking complete freedom for mobile phone users to access any browser, operating system or app without any restrictions from the provider.
Reliance Jio, a key player in the Indian telecom industry, participated in the gathering but refrained from objecting or responding to the matter. But sources close to the company assured that JioPhone does not violate net neutrality as it gives unrestricted access to the internet. As for the freedom of downloading any apps, the sources pointed towards the limitations of the OS.
"With regards to apps, since it is a new OS, the app ecosystem around it will evolve over a period of time," the sources clarified to ET.
JioPhone is the first ever feature phone with 4G VoLTE access and the company aims to connect millions to the internet with its new budget phone. RIL is giving out the phone essentially for free, with a refundable deposit of Rs 1,500, which will be given back to the owner once the phone is returned after three years.
JioPhone has limited features when compared to smartphones, but it does the job for most people who haven't used the internet on phone before. The phone comes pre-loaded with Jio's own apps like JioMusic, JioTV, JioCinema, JioChat along with social media apps like Facebook and YouTube. Since the phone does not run on Google's Android OS, there is no Play Store, hence limiting user's options to load new apps. It remains to be seen how Reliance defends its JioPhone from the claims of net neutrality violations when millions of orders have already been placed.