Net Neutrality Stands, Not Free Calls via Internet Messengers

In a move that can end the free regime for domestic calls made through Internet messenger services such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, an official panel has suggested that they be benchmarked against regular telecom service providers for tariff and regulation.

Yet, it has said other communication services offered by them dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulation. “For these application services, there is no case for prescribing regulatory oversight similar to conventional communication services,” it said.

“Under existing telecom licensing conditions, Internet telephony is permitted under restricted conditions. But pricing the arbitrage of OTT (over-the-top) domestic voice communication services has the potential of significantly disrupting existing telecom revenue models,” the panel said.

“The existence of a regulatory arbitrage, in addition to the pricing arbitrage, adds a degree of complexity that requires a graduated and calibrated public policy response to bring about a level playing field,” said the committee that was asked to look at the whole gamut of net neutrality.

The panel, headed by technocrat A.K. Bhargava, said the tariff plans offered by telecom and Internet service providers must conform to the government’s principles of net neutrality, and the the watchdog asked to examine the tariffs in accordance with the stated objectives.

“Legitimate traffic management practices may be allowed but should be tested against the core principles of net neutrality,” it said, but wanted a “liberal regime” for voice telephony over the Internet for international calling services.

Still an evolving concept, net neutrality means governments and Internet service providers must treat all data and services on the Internet equally, and must not levy differential tariffs for usage, content, platform, sites, application or mode of communication.

The committee said the primary goals of net neutrality should be directed towards achievement of developmental aims of the country by facilitating universal, affordable broadband with a good quality of service for its citizens.

“Over-the-top application services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed.”

The report also said national security is paramount, regardless of treatment of net neutrality. “The measures to ensure compliance of security related requirements from OTT service providers, need to be worked out through inter-ministerial consultation.”

Highlights of the Report:

– Innovation and infrastructure have to be promoted simultaneously as neither can spread without the other. The policy should identify and eliminate actions that inhibit innovation abilities inherent in an open Internet world and investments in related infrastructure.

– User rights need to ensured that service providers do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, post any legal content, application or service on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use.

– OTT application services, available in the market for some time, enhance consumer welfare and increase productivity. Such services should be actively encouraged and any impediment in its expansion and growth should be removed.

– For OTT application services, there is no case for prescribing regulatory oversight similar to conventional communication services.

– Legitimate traffic management practices may be allowed but should b“ “test”d” against the core principles of net neutrality

– Traffic management is complex and specialized field and enough capacity building is needed before undertaking such an exercise

– Content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value in violation of core principles of net neutrality, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose.

– New legislation must incorporate principles of net neutrality. Till such time, interim norms enforceable through licensing conditions as suggested by the committee may be the way forward.

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