Department of Telecom favours regulation of WhatsApp, Viber calls : Net Neutrality

By Atul Chavan - 10:31 AM

The debate over net neutrality is far from over, it seems. The report released by the Department of Telecom (DoT) on Thursday is unlikely to soothe the ruffled feathers of lakhs of telecom subscribers in India. 

DoT has favored policy regulation that would put curbs or tax the popular messaging and calling services like WhatsApp and Viber. 

The report's tone seems to indicate that it supports the rights of the internet subscribers to visit and use any services and applications "without restrictions". 

However, this 'support' for net neutrality has been well masked and DoT has actually proposed bringing OTT services, especially the ones offering domestic voice calling, under the same regulatory framework that governs the domestic telecom operators. 

It has favored regulation of calls/messages made over third-party apps like WhatsApp and Viber in line with what the telecom service provider (TSP) lobby has been demanding for long. 

There has seen a massive outpouring of support in favor of net neutrality during the consultation process undertaken by the regulator just few months back. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had got over a million emails during the consultation process that ended just a few months ago. 

TOI too has been advocating the cause of net neutrality ever since the debate started. But DoT's proposals, based on Trai's consultation process, seems to have effectively dashed those hopes. 

DoT's net neutrality report says in its recommendations that "User rights on the Internet need to be ensured so that TSPs/ISPs do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, post any legal content, application or service on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use."
In a lip service to net neutrality, DoT has said: "OTT application services ... enhance consumer welfare and increase productivity. Therefore, such services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed." 

This means that a number of services that require active internet such as voice-based messaging and calling apps like WhatsApp and Viber cannot be restricted or stopped by the carriers on the pretext of revenue loss. 

However, DoT has in fact paved the way for changes in telecom policy where the domestic calling through such services is concerned while it is okay with voice calls outside the country's borders. 

"The existence of a pricing arbitrage in VoIP OTT communication services requires a graduated and calibrated public policy response. In case of OTT VoIP international calling services, a liberal approach may be adopted," says the report. 

Since international calls using internet telephony are already permitted since April 2002, the use of words 'liberal approach' in this context can only be seen as frivolous and obfuscating by lakhs of supporters of net neutrality and OTT providers alike. 

By slipping in the following recommendation, DoT seems to have capitulated to the telecom provider lobby's demand to bring OTT services under the same regulatory and licensing framework that they follow. 

"In case of domestic calls (local and national), 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." 

DoT has recommended that OTT players should also comply with the security norms that govern telecom operators. "National security is paramount, regardless of treatment of net neutrality. The measures to ensure compliance of security related requirements from OTT service providers need to be worked out through inter-ministerial consultations," it said. 

While nobody will question the need for bringing OTTs under the mandatory security monitoring framework, if DoT does play along with the powerful telecom lobby by asking OTTs to seek a telecom license, the move will not go down well with the consumers. 

The advocates of net neutrality have been demanding that such services not be taxed because telcos already charge hefty amounts towards data services. In the recent past, all service providers, including the state-owned BSNL, have been steadily raising data charges.

PTI adds: The panel has opposed projects like Facebook's, which allow access to certain websites without mobile data charges, while suggesting that similar plans such as Airtel Zero be allowed with prior clearance from TRAI. 

  • Share:

You Might Also Like