“TSPs (telecom service providers) can’t provide internet telephony, or voice over IP (VoIP), since they are licensees. On the other hand, there are others who provide VoIP, which is the same as internet telephony,” Sharma said in an interview.
“This is a situation of regulatory imbalance,” he added.
Internet-based calls offered by the likes of Skype and Whatsapp at sharply lower costs than telcos was the trigger for the net neutrality debate in India when market leader
decided to charge these calls separately in December 2014.
It, however, was forced to withdraw the plan after huge protests, especially on social media.
A communication app such as Skype or Whatsapp provides the same service that a telecom company provides — voice and messaging services — but the app isn’t licensed while a carrier is under a licence, which involves various regulatory requirements and fees.
“Now, we are working on internet telephony being allowed. They (telcos) can use internet telephony to provide voice calls, which the OTTs are using. So to some extent, the regulatory imbalance will be reduced,” Sharma said.
Globally, telcos are permitted to provide VoIP in many markets, including the EU and the US. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all OTT players to comply with requirements considered comparable to those for telcos.
Commenting on the pre-consultation paper on net neutrality that was released on Monday, the Trai chairman said the regulator wanted to be absolutely sure that it does not miss any issue around the controversial topic.
“Within one month, we hope to have a full consultation, and then we would tackle all the aspects of net neutrality and give the recommendations to the government,” he said.
He said this was the right time for India to tackle the complex issue of net neutrality, a concept which guarantees free and equal access to the Internet for all.
“Today, internet is extremely important for the development of our country, and we have a fast developing startup ecosystem, for governance, banking, health, education. If you don’t have a clear separation between the network and content, we will create a mess. And if today we don’t tackle that mess, this mess will acquire its own momentum and then tomorrow it will be very difficult to tackle it,” Sharma said.
He added that while the ruling barring discriminatory pricing of data services will form a part of the holistic recommendations on net neutrality, Trai is yet to decide if the matter regarding communication apps, or over-the-top (OTT) players, would form a part.
“OTT and net neutrality are completely orthogonal,” said Sharma.
He said Trai is still to decide if it will relook this issue — on which a consultation process was held in March 2015 — or hold another. “We will certainly take into account the views from the March consultation paper.”
Sharma asserted that another consultation paper floated last week on free data was also not about net neutrality. “This should not be looked at through the prism of net neutrality or discriminatory pricing. This is in fact guarding net neutrality very assiduously”.
He said that the intent of the paper was to explore if there is a telco-agnostic platform or an arrangement or a facility where a content provider can offer its product for free and can attract a consumer for some incentive, so long as these arrangements don’t violate the principles of discriminatory pricing.
“We are looking for an automated scalable TSP-agnostic technology solution to this problem, which does not require any agreements with or consent from telcos,” Sharma said.