By Rishi Raj
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chairman, Rahul Khullar does not see any illegality in Bharti Airtel’s move to charge customers a higher rate for making voice calls from its network using apps like Skype, Viber etc than what it charges for surfing.
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In an exclusive interview, Khullar, while agreeing that the move is against the principle of net neutrality, said that so far there is no policy or regulatory framework in the country which says that net neutrality should be maintained.
“Let’s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot say the move is illegal today as there is no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator,” Khullar said.
However, going ahead, the Trai will bring the over-the-top (OTT) players like Viber, Skype etc under some sort of regulations and is in the process of bringing out a consultation paper on the subject.
“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 said.
Net neutrality means that a consumer has access to all forms of content in a similar manner and not in a way where a service provider slows or fastens the speed depending on whether the site has paid for it or not.
Pointing out the ways the OTT players could be brought under regulation, Khullar said that there could be licensing norms wherein they have to pay licence fee to the government on a revenue share basis. The other option, which is simpler is that a termination charge is put on calls originating from Skype-like services.
In the first scenario, the OTT players would be brought under a licensing regime similar to mobile operators where an entry fee would have to be paid followed by revenue share licence fee as a percentage of adjusted gross revenue. There are globally examples of such a practice, for instance in France. The moment this happens the services of OTT players would not come for free and a level-playing field would emerge.
However, in this scenario only the communication aspects should be brought under regulation and not the commerce side, he said. This means a service like Viber, Skype or Whatsapp, which are used for communication, would be regulated but commercial services like Facebook which are advertisement driven would be left out. This is how the European nations have tackled the issue.
In the second scenario, the principle of termination charge can be levied on the OTT players offering voice calls. “The good thing here would be that there would be no need for pricing the data packs differently for voice and data and since every operator has a smart network which can identify voice calls made over the net, he can bill the originating party a termination charge,” Khullar said.