Local WhatsApp, Viber, Skype calls may no longer be free
NEW DELHI: A high-level government committee has upheld the concept of net neutrality, but its recommendations have raised some major concerns for consumers and startups. Those hooked to applications like WhatsApp, Skype and Viber may no longer be able to make free domestic calls (barring negligible data charges) through these voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services. However, instant messaging and international calls through these services will remain free, if these recommendations are implemented.
Another suggestion by the committee — that zero-rating platforms be treated on a case-by-case basis and clearance sought from telecom regulator Trai — opens up the worrying possibility of discrimination in favour of established, cash-rich internet application providers. This could potentially stifle innovation and kill the burgeoning start-up culture in the country. On the positive side, it did not recommend any regulatory controls for fast-growing over-the-top (OTT) services that deliver varied internet applications.
The committee points out that “India is the land of the Buddha, who preached the middle path”. But in its effort to follow his philosophy, the report may end up satisfying nobody — something the six-member DoT panel is probably aware of. So, the over 100-page report says, “The committee unhesitatingly recommends that the core principles of net neutrality must be adhered to”, but then qualifies: “Clearly, the debate on Net Neutrality is multi-dimensional and solution to this cannot therefore be unidimensional.”
In a major dampener for consumers, the report calls for VoIP services to be licenced in the same way as mobile operators are. This could mean that such service providers will eventually have to pay a licence fee, which could force them to start charging customers money for use of their services.
The logic given by the committee is that calls made through the internet (through services such as Viber, Skype and WhatsApp), are nearly six times cheaper than those made through a conventional mobile network. Also, it claims that VoIP players enjoy a regulatory arbitrage as they do not have to comply with licencing conditions and fee such as those mandated on telecom operators such as Airtel, Vodafone or Idea Cellular.
The committee felt that this arbitrage is a “matter of serious concern” for policy makers. “The committee reiterates its view that domestic OTT communication services (or rather internet telephony) should be regulated through exercise of licencing powers available under section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act to ensure a level playing field,” says the report.
The committee’s report will now be studied by the government even as it waits for a report from regulator Trai on the same matter before taking a final call. The committee has invited suggestions from the public through a discussion forum atmygov.in.
On zero-rating platforms, the report says that tariff plans will have to be filed with Trai, which will consider an approval after considering it from the aspect of net neutrality (ex-ante determination). Also, it says that complaints against existing platforms can be considered ex-post regulation in case of complaints. “Imposition of penalties or financial disincentives could be considered if the principles of Net Neutrality are violated.”
While falling short of recommending a ban on zero-rating platforms, where telecom operators offer free browsing to consumers for websites that pay for it, the committee seeks to put a check on rampant misuse. It says that traffic management by telecom and internet service providers should be transparent and “improper (paid or otherwise) prioritization may not be permitted.”
“Unreasonable traffic management, which is exploitative or anti-competitive in nature, may not be permitted,” the report says.
Facebook’s much-touted, but highly controversial, internet.org service — through which it aims to provide free internet access in remote regions by tie-ups with telecom companies (Reliance Communications in India) — has also been flagged by the committee. Internet.org originally provided access to only a host of websites, leading to allegations of discrimination by those unrepresented on the platform.
“… content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose. Collaborations between telecom service providers and content providers that enable such gatekeeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged. If need be, Government and the regulator may step in to restore balance to ensure that the internet continues to remain an open and neutral platform for expression and innovation,” says the report.
The move is largely seen as beneficial as it will aid the development of applications by startups and new-age entrepreneurs.
The committee voiced its concern over the security of consumer and other info that flows over the internet, especially in view of national security. Many of the OTT players are unregulated and some of them have their servers located outside the country.