While arguing telcos were completely wrong in trying to charge higher rates for VoIP, Lok Sabha MP Jay Panda said there was a case for a common regulatory burden on telcos and over-the-top (OTT) players like Skype and WhatsApp who were providing a competing service. Panda said this in a Ficci-FE discussion on net neutralityin the capital on Wednesday, reports fe Bureau in New Delhi. Even in the US, former FCC chairman Kevin Martin intervened to say, the net neutrality rules allow telcos to prioritise data packets such as VoIP — to give customers a better user-experience — but they cannot charge extra for it. Martin said that while prioritisation of data packets, like voice or video-gaming, was compatible with net neutrality, charging extra for this was not.
The discussion was organised in the context of a furious civil society debate on whether telcos could offer services which Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar said were tantamount to dividing the internet into pieces, a view shared by Panda who said the internet was based on the egalitarian principle that a data ‘packet was a packet was a packet’.
The discussion took place a day before all submissions have to be made to the telecom regulator which has floated a discussion paper on the issue of licensing OTT players and other issues of net neutrality. Earlier in the day, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi raised the issue in Parliament and said he wanted a debate on the issue of net neutrality.
Panda countered COAI director general Rajan Mathews who spoke about how private telcos had built up the mobile internet backbone at significant costs, and said telcos should have seen the writing on the wall years ago, and bid for spectrum keeping in mind there would be a sharp fall in their revenues once VoIP came in — “they would then have been able to make money at 2-paise calls instead of at 40-paise calls”. In response to Com First director Mahesh Uppal’s argument that telcos had to pay large revenue shares to the government for voice calls while the OTT players didn’t, Panda agreed there was a case for a similar license fee regime — given that VoIP calls cost a fraction of the normal telco ones, the absolute license fees, of course, would be much lower.
While Panda said the telcos had benefited from the fact that VoIP calls were still not allowed to be terminated on normal phone networks, ICRIER director and chief executive Rajat Kathuria — also a former Trai economist — corrected him and said the real reason for the law was that the government wanted to protect the state-owned BSNL from falling voice traffic revenues, especially in the lucrative long-distance segment. Kathuria argued that while the debate over net neutrality was a complex one, at a very basic level it was government policies such as not allowing VoIP termination that was hitting at the very basis of net neutrality. That doesn’t mean, he said, that license fees had to go up for everyone, they could also be reduced for everyone.
In response to the charge that products like AirtelZero and Internet.org were weakening the internet since they were creating an advantage for a few deep-pocketed firms — if Flipkart wants to, for instance, be part of AirtelZero, subscribers can access it free since Flikpkart will pay — Ankhi Das said Internet.org was completely free, that neither Facebook nor the companies on Internet.org paid anything to anyone. Das is head, public policy, Facebook India, South & Central Asia. “We are consistent with net neutrality. Internet.org is free and there is no cash changing hands,” she said. Chandrasekhar said that since the internet is a public, collaborative network there is no reason why telecom operators should be allowed to control it. “My problem is that you cannot let telecom operators divide the internet into islands,” said Chandrasekhar, who was himself a telecom operator till some years ago. While supporting net neutrality, Mathews defended products like AirtelZero by saying telecom is the only business where offering something free is counter-intuitive.
While reinforcing the principles of net neutrality and coming out against higher data packages for VoIP calls or AirtelZero-type products, Centre for Internet & Society’s Policy Director Pranesh Prakash said the solution to the privately-funded-public-internet was to use the Universal Service Obligation Fund — 5% of adjusted telco revenues go towards this each year — to build internet networks. Indian Cellular Association’s National president Pankaj Mohindroo added that the real issue was of providing internet access to the unconnected and that the net neutrality argument essentially centred around providing more low-cost services to the better off who had smart phones to be able to access Skype-type services.