Their services have been singeing optic fibre networks across the globe for some time. Now Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chairman Rahul Khullar has set the cat among the pigeons by initiating a consultation process to identify whether over the top (OTT) operators, which offer internet-based calling and messaging applications like WhatsApp, Viber, Line, Skype, Facebook Messenger and Google Talk, need to be regulated. In a 118-page consultation paper, Trai on Friday raised
20 questions of which the first is the most critical: Should OTT players offering communication services be brought under the licensing regime?
Telcos have reason to be miffed as the growth of OTT players is affecting their traditional revenue streams — one of the biggest revenue earners of telcos, SMS, has been badly hit. While an operator gets on an average 16 paise for an SMS, a message through an OTT costs just 1 paise, based on data charges. That has resulted in a fall in the growth of SMS revenues. While there will be an estimated 8.16 trillion SMSes globally in 2015, messages through OTTs will more than double to 18.3 trillion.
Understandably, telcos that invest big chunks of money to acquire spectrum — Indian telcos have just bid for spectrum in the 800/900/1800/2100MHz bands for R1.1 lakh crore — are concerned.
Rajan S Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), says operators are merely looking for a level playing field. “If OTT operators are not regulated, then why regulate us?” Mathews asks. The big problem that telcos face is that while OTT operators use their networks to connect to the user, their returns are minimal. The other issue that Trai has raised relates to safety and privacy issues while using OTT applications.
Trai has also talked about net neutrality. That essentially means that a broadband network should be detached from the information being sent over it and that no information sent should be prioritised over the other. Recently, Bharti Airtel had to retreat from a plan to charge more for voice over internet services. The big worry area for telcos is that OTT operators are planning to offer voice services. At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Sunil Mittal, chairman and group CEO, Bharti Enterprises, had reportedly told Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that while the internet may be free, telcos need to charge OTT operators for something.