Taking a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach, a department of telecommunications-appointed committee on net neutrality has recommended that apps of over-the-top (OTT) players like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber can continue to be used for making international calls or for messaging, but they will have to be licensed when they are used for making either local or national long-distance (NLD) calls.
The report, which was released by DoT on Thursday, is recommendatory in nature and has sought stakeholders’ comment, which along with the report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India — when it comes — would be used by the government to finalise its policy on net neutrality.
While partial regulation of OTTs has been recommended by the DoT panel, on the contentious issue of sponsored data plans it broadly views them against the principles of net neutrality.
However, it has taken a nuanced stance on applying the principle to specific data plans. For instance, plans like Facebook’s Internet.org is a strict no-no as are any form of collaboration between telecom service providers (TSPs) and content providers that enable a gatekeeping role to be played by any entity that is seen to be against net neutrality. However, coming to Bharti Airtel’s Zero platform, it has said that a toll-free number kind of plan is fine but any ‘walled garden approach’ based on paid prioritisation should not be allowed. Since there is a possibility of providing several tariff plans, it has desisted from a blanket approval or disapproval approach and said that every tariff needs to be first approved by Trai against the principles of net neutrality.
The forbearance operators enjoy with regard to conventional voice and data tariff plans would not apply to any sponsored data plan. Instead, a prior approval of the regulator needs to be taken and in case of any dispute, DoT would be the final arbiter.
Broadly seen, the report comes as partial relief to leading telcos that are facing the possibility of OTTs cutting into their lucrative voice revenues since a 1-minute voice call gives telcos 40-50 paise of revenue, while a 1-minute VoIP call results in just 4 paise revenue. However, when it comes to data packages such as Airtel Zero or Internet.org, the going would not be that simple or straight.
Mobile operators make about 3.45 per cent of their revenues from international calls and around 18 per cent and 56 per cent from NLD and local calls, respectively.
The issue of net neutrality had become contentious since Trai came out with a consultation paper in March asking, among other things, whether OTTs needed to be brought under the ambit of licensing conditions. A viral social media campaign also ensured Bharti Airtel withdrew a package charging differential rates — three times the normal rate — for VoIP services. While the telco has not withdrawn its Airtel Zero package, a high-pitched campaign saw e-commerce major Flipkart desisting from it.
‘Specific OTT communication services dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments,’ the report has said, while maintaining that status quo should be maintained in his regard.
On VoIP-based services, the report says, ‘In case of domestic calls, communication services by TSPs and OTT communication services may be treated similarly from a regulatory angle for the present. The nature of regulatory similarity, the calibration of regulatory response and its phasing can be appropriately determined after public consultations and Trai’s recommendations to this effect.’ FE
Internet.org, a gateway to net access: facebook
New Delhi: Following the DoT recommendations on net neutrality, Facebook has defended its Internet.org as a “platform to promote an internet access model that is open and non-exclusive”. Kevin Martin, V-P for Mobile and Global Access Policy at Facebook, said the preservation of the core principles of net neutrality and the promotion of innovation and infrastructure within the context of India’s Internet access challenges are critical to bringing more people online. ENS