Earlier today Airtel announced it was withdrawing its plans to charge extra for Over The Top (OTT) services including VoIP. However, it is not the time to celebrate just yet as things may get much worse in the coming weeks. Also Read - Best Vodafone-idea (Vi) prepaid plans under Rs 100: List of plans, unlimited data, voice calls, moreAlso Read - Airtel Rs 79 plan vs JioPhone Rs 75 prepaid plan compared: Which offers better value?
What Airtel has has essentially said is it is withdrawing its plans to launch VoIP packs as it awaits a consultation paper being floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on the issue. Here’s Airtel’s statement: Also Read - Airtel Rs 79 vs Vodafone-Idea (Vi) Rs 79 prepaid plans compared: Data, calls, and other benefits
In view of the news reports that a consultation paper will be issued shortly by TRAI on issues relating to services offered by OTT players including VOIP, we have decided not to implement our proposed launch of VoIP packs.
We have no doubt that as a result of the consultation process a balanced outcome would emerge that would not only protect the interests of all stakeholders and viability of this important sector but would also encourage much needed investments in spectrum and roll out of data networks to fulfill the objective of digital India.
However, after reading comments made by TRAI Chairman, Rahul Khullar, this move is likely to give legitimacy to Airtel’s plans. Rather than focusing on net neutrality and what is good for consumers, TRAI seems to be tilting in favor of carriers like Airtel.
Let s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there s no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator, Khullar reportedly told the Financial Express.
TRAI has been gunning to bring what it and carriers call OTT service providers under the same regulation that carriers have to undergo. And it is not for any other reason but to provide a “level playing field.” If carriers cannot compete with new services, will the regulator help create conditions to stifle innovation and new-age services to ensure carriers benefit? It isn’t clear whether TRAI is acting as a regulator or a lobby for carriers.
If the telecom players fall under a set of rules, then should not the OTT players be also brought under some kind of rules? Otherwise there would be a non-level playing field, he reportedly told the publication.
He also reportedly says that apps like Skype, Viber or WhatsApp that are communication services (voice or messages) should be made to pay license fees to the government on a revenue-share basis. Meanwhile, “commercial services” like Facebook that makes money via advertising shouldn’t be brought under the regime. Notice that Facebook is now a member of the Cellular Operators Association of India, a lobbying body for carriers in India. Another option could be that the service pays a termination fee to the network where a voice call terminates.
Multiple questions arise from the stance the TRAI Chairman has reportedly taken.
Firstly, how do you define what is a communication service and what is not? Isn’t Facebook Messenger a communication service that provides both voice and text messaging? What about email? Is a service like Twitter a messaging service since it also provides the option of Direct Messaging?
Secondly, how does the revenue share model for license fee come into the picture? The user is already paying for the data that is being consumed and in most cases isn’t paying anything to Viber, Skype or WhatsApp essentially when it is an app-to-app call. In essence, the carrier is already generating revenues when a subscriber is using data services to make VoIP calls, a percentage of which is paid to the government as license fee.
Thirdly, Indian laws don’t allow VoIP calls to be routed via PSTN to a landline or mobile. Given that scenario, the termination fee model shouldn’t apply.
Let’s be clear, the bone of contention here is that with VoIP consumers can make cheaper voice calls and text messages (remember, they pay the carrier for data used) than what a carrier charges for a regular call. The issue here is how can carriers compete with these services. The alleged stance by the TRAI chairman is anti-consumer.