Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) have said that the key points of concern surrounding internet telephony and voice calling over TSPs’ digitised networks is strict licensing on TSPs which is stopping them from arriving at a level playing field with OTT players like several internet calling apps, which are much less regulated. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had recently released a consulting paper wherein it invited comments and counter comments on the matter of internet telephony and Voice over Internet Protocol by 21 July and 4 August, respectively.
Currently, internet service providers (ISPs) are allowed to provide internet telephony services between connected computers. However, over time, technological advancement has allowed this service to be available on mobile phones and other smart devices which can be used through calling apps like WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Line etc. TRAI said that TSPs may be reluctant to provide Voice over Internet Protocol Technology (VoIP) to users as there is already such a service in place on their conventional mobile networks. Some other issues pointed out in the paper were the setting of a clear licensing fee for ISPs in case they are permitted to give unlimited VoIP services to their customers. One more important issue taken up was the call drop or call termination charges. The regulator has also sought suggestions on a proposal to adding location information in VoIP calls that are made to emergency numbers like 100.
“Voice over IP uses network resources much more efficiently than conventional telephone service, reducing the costs of providing a call (albeit with the loss of some call quality and service features) and creates opportunities for regulatory arbitrage that enable TSPs and consumers to reduce or avoid call charges,” TRAI has said. It has to be decided what aspects of conventional telephony regulation should apply to internet telephony service. The telecom service providers (TSPs) have said that due to this licensing, the current situation is tilted against stakeholders and there should be a “level playing field”.
Rajan Mathews, General Secretary, Cellular Operators Association of India, told this newspaper, “No OTT services could be provided if TSPs had not innovated and allowed for such services to be provided over their networks.”
“The principal issue from Licensed Operator’s perspective regarding internet telephony is that all voice calls, be it over the Internet or any other network, are currently subject to ‘license’,” Mathews said. In a counter measure, this framework is being circumvented by embedding voice in applications (OTT players like WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, WeChat). Additionally, telcos are demanding that same services should be treated equally regardless of the provider and if OTT apps are not regulated then telcos should be given slack and treated equally. “This (circumvention) is being done by embedding voice in applications or using the present regulatory provision where landline networks are exempt from paying interconnect charges (Ringo, BSNL, etc.). TSPs are insisting that same services must be subject to the same rules to ensure a level playing field, no matter by whom these services are provided,” Mathews added. Many people have argued that Telcos have hindered technological evolution while demanding licensing and regulating calling apps and app based communication services. But, Rajan said, “Telcos, world over, have been at the forefront of introducing technology innovation and providing these to customers. AT&T/Bell labs are just one example. The mobile revolution in India should again bear ample testimony as to the innovation, affordability and vast amount of resources invested by TSPs.”