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Net Neutrality Debate Is Back With TRAI’s Latest Consultation Paper; COAI Again Demands Regulation of OTT Players

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Save the Internet Big-002

The battle for protecting neutrality of Internet is back; and with more vengeance this time. Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the powerful lobby of telecom operators which have been supporting anti-neutrality plans like Airtel Zero and Free Basics have again asked TRAI to regulate OTT messaging apps like WhatsApp, Skype etc with the same old logic of decreasing revenues.

This fresh salvo by COAI was fired while responding to TRAI’s new consultation paper regarding Net Neutrality in India.

In their letter and response to the consultation paper, Rajan Mathews, director general at COAI has specifically said that VoIP service (voice calls using messaging apps) is clear cut ‘substitute’ for services provided by telecom players, and they should be regulated.

Rajan said, “OCSPs (OTT communication service providers) offer these services without holding any licence in India, which is violation of the Indian Telegraph Act. The licensing and regulatory regime cannot allow a situation wherein the licensed entity (read: telcos) is treated at a lower footing than an unlicensed entity (read: OCSP)”

Basically, telecom operators want TRAI to charge these OTT players the same licensing fees, spectrum charges and other fees which any telecom operator is normally charged.

As COAI had shared earlier, voice still constitutes majority of telecom firms’ revenues, and OTT players are eating into their profits by offering voice services. In fact, COAI has said that in order to balance the loss of revenue from voice due to free calling feature by OTTs, they will need to raise data charges by SIX times, something which TRAI will never allow.

COAI said, “The low data price is furthering the growth of VoIP/Internet telephony by unlicensed OCSPs at the cost of PSTN voice telephony, thereby reducing TSPs ability to continue with the lower price of data for accessing content over the Internet,”

Now, the question is, if OTT players like WhatsApp, Skype, Snapchat etc are regulated and asked to pay huge multi-crore spectrum and license fees, then how will they offer free calling and messaging services?

TRAI Looking At Toll Free Model for Internet?

Meanwhile, TRAI Chairman RS Sharma, who has been phenomenal in stopping Free Basics and Airtel Zero by banning them in India, has given few interviews in the last few weeks, wherein he has hinted towards a ‘toll free’ model for allowing free Internet to all telecom subscribers.

Few key pointers which RS Sharma and TRAI has tried to shared via these interviews are:

  • TRAI has no problem with any company providing free internet or free content; but it has to be free for all consumers of all telecom operators
  • Telecom operators are like data-wheelers: they should be neutral about what flows through them
  • Thus, if Facebook provides free data via Free Basics to all consumers of all telecom operators (and not just Reliance customers), then there should be no issue with this scheme. (Our opinion: This would be a massive disaster!)
  • He said, “Suppose there is some health website. You say, as an incentive, the customer will not be charged for data access. The government of India may decide that for this e-governance website, education website, health website, can we have toll free access? This should be without the website having an agreement with the telcos,”
  • In another interview, he said that if cash rich companies are giving free internet to capture market, then its a natural business process of a free market, and nothing to do with Net Neutrality. Giving example of the discount scenario of ecommerce market, he said, “Today Flipkart sells products at a 30 percent discount, which a new website can’t afford. This is business stuff, not net neutrality stuff… it doesn’t give advantage to the network provider. Which law can prevent giving free books or shirts or anything else to people who visit your website? That’s your business strategy,”
  • Regarding regulation of OTT players, he said, “Look, we will not like to restrict technology. At the same time, just because you are a licensee doesn’t mean you should be disabled from using that technology. So we are exploring if there are other issues which would need to be addressed in internet telephony,”

Things are confusing as of now, and we are not able to make out whether TRAI is also confused or not. Creating a toll free model for allowing Facebook and other firms to give free Internet would be a massive disaster.

At the same time, COAI is pushing for regulating messaging apps, and trying to reduce telecom firms’ losses due.

Here is the pre-consultation paper published by TRAI, and everyone is encouraged to send in their replies before June 21st.

SaveTheInternet.in platform is also opened again for making the reply process easier. We will keep you updated as more details and opinions come in regarding this issue.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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