After netizens upped their ante in support of net neutrality, sending over 2 million messages to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the country’s top mobile operators on Friday followed suit with their own slogan — “Sabka Internet, Sabka Vikas” — batting for the same goal albeit with a difference. Charging that the over-the-top players are having a free ride on networks created by them, the telcos said that if the goal is to be of digital inclusion by connecting 1 billion people to the internet, then there should be same set of rules for the same services.
In a rare public get-together, the CEOs of top mobile firms Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Aircel, Videocon and Telenor under the aegis of the Cellular Operators Association of India demanded that mobile calls and internet-based calls popularly known as VoIP should be treated as same and the same rules should apply to them. Currently, VoIP calls made through apps like Skype, WhatsApp or Viber are free of any charge. However, telcos earn for the data consumed, which yields several times less than a voice call.
Understandably, the OTT players have been resisting any such move and swamping Trai with their letters. To counter it the COAI also launched a number — 18002706899 — urging subscribers supporting its form of net neutrality to give a missed call on it to support its cause. One of the messages the caller receives is a thanks for supporting same rules for same services.
Industry sources said that COAI has targeted around 10 million calls in its support. It has already received around 2.2 million calls with around 1.9 million supporting its cause.
The fight between the OTTs who have the backing of a large number of netizens and the telcos sharpened ever since Trai came out with a consultation paper to examine whether the former should be brought under some kind of a regulatory mechanism to create a level playing field. While the netizens supporting the free ride of OTTs have bombarded the regulator pressing against any kind of a regulatory intervention as it would kill net neutrality, the mobile operators on Wednesday sent in their responses highlighting how lack of a level-playing field would never bring about a digital revolution in the country.
The operators said if they are not offered a level playing field with OTTs like Skype and WhatsApp, their businesses would be viable only by raising data prices several times, making it unaffordable to a large chunk of people. “If same rules are not to apply, then the only way this industry can be viable is data rate will be six times from where they are today. After that, you can do what you want. But if you take data rate to five times or six times, a lot of people in India will never be able to access the internet,” COAI vice-chairman and Bharti Airtel India CEO Gopal Vittal said. “OTT gives us business. We as an industry love OTT. Only we are saying that the same rules should be applied on the same communication service. If rules are same, frankly technology doesn’t matter,” Vittal added.
Bharti Airtel has been the focus of netizens’ ire ever since it brought a differential tariff between VoIP calls and net surfing earlier this year which it later withdrew. Currently it is under fire for launching a platform called Airtel Zero that provides consumers free access to mobile applications that join it by paying a certain amount.
Idea Cellular managing director Himanshu Kapania said telecom operators make 99% of investment in networks that connect OTT players. “People in rural areas have Rs 500-1,000 priced mobile phones. They are happy with plain voice services. Smartphones are with the rich. There is a section which says there should be only one platform. Why should poor people subsidise rich by paying higher rates?” Kapania asked.
Vodafone India CEO Sunil Sood said there should be an open and healthy debate whether sampling should be allowed. “Let the government decide what the rules are. If they decide rules, whatever it may be, we are fine. Same service same rules,” Sood said.
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