Airtel's Unliminet and Net Neutrality - Where do we stand?

T-Mobile, a carrier in the US, has been running a program/plan called BingeON that allows its subscribers to stream video content without incurring the high costs associated with such user habits. In recent days, BingeON has come under strong criticisms from net neutrality advocates.

This is what T-Mobile says of the BingeON plan on its website:

With Binge On™, Simple Choice users on a qualifying plan are FREE to stream unlimited video on your favorite services like Netflix, HBO NOW, Hulu, and many more without using a drop of your data. Nothing to configure – all automatically applied to your plan.

So plain and simple, T-Mobile isolates traffic and that from on-demand streaming services like Netflix is not subjected to the same pricing as others. That already contravenes the principles of net neutrality (that, simply, all traffic and content should be treated equally).

Netflix is now available in Kenya and even though we don’t know how this will pan out in the long run, we may be on course to seeing some interesting trends. Like Airtel, Safaricom or someone else offering an exclusive bundle for binge-watching Narcos. On the other hand, an ISP like Zuku may decide to isolate the traffic since streamers can gobble a lot of bandwidth and may decide to charge that separately. Note the use of MAY as this is purely speculative. There is a precedent elsewhere. Comcast in the United States and its ilk have not been happy about services like Netflix [read this] and [this] and [this].That is conversation for another day though. The conversation today is Airtel’s Unliminet.

As you already know, with Unliminet, users can subscribe to various plans and in return get “unlimited” access to social media (Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) with every bundle purchase besides some voice minutes and text messages. Isn’t this against the principles of net neutrality? I am asking this because quite a number of people have ben up in arms locally over Facebook’s Internet.org/Free Basics. From one end, plans like Unliminet should be viewed as something that adds value to today’s mobile user but if we’re to banish Free Basics isn’t it high time we also questioned Unliminet?

According to T-Mobile, its BingeON plan which has come under so much attack in sections of the media and net neutrality advocacy groups, does not prioritise traffic. Here is what it says:

There are no special “fast lanes” here. We don’t selectively prioritize content, like streaming video or music, in any way. It’s managed like all other data. The only difference is on our customers’ bills. And to those who try to sensationalize headlines by accusing T-Mobile of “throttling” video, it’s flat out not true. We’re giving customers the ability to control how they apply their high-speed data towards mobile video. Chug your paid high-speed data, or sip it slowly. It’s up to you.

For Unliminet, the conversation is somewhat different. More on the lines of the conversation on social media about Free Basics and net neutrality. Doesn’t “unlimited” internet access to select social apps have a direct bearing on usage patterns at the expense of other apps and services? If it does, then isn’t this a direct contravention of the principles of net neutrality?

Where do we stand on the matter then? Just as Free Basics is bound to make it easier for someone with limited resources to subscribe to internet bundles and access a few sites so is Unliminet making it easy for those of us who are social media addicts/heavy users to keep quenching our thirst.Or maybe I am getting this all wrong.

Tip: If you are not conversant with what net neutrality is, THIS [Medium article] is a good piece to get you started.

Photo: savetheinternet.com