The move follows news reports suggesting the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) could issue a consultation paper on over-the-top companies (which deliver audio, video and other media over the internet without the involvement of a multiple-system operator in the control or distribution of content), including VoIP service providers.
Trai is yet to officially start consultations in this regard.
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“We have no doubt the consultation process will have a balanced outcome, which will not only protect all stakeholders’ interests and the sector’s viability, but also encourage much-needed investment in spectrum and the roll-out of data networks to fulfil the objective of digital India,” Bharti Airtel said in a statement.
On Friday, the company had announced the launch of special data packs for VoIP services. For prepaid users, exclusive VoIP packs were to be priced at Rs 75 for 75 megabyte (MB) for 28 days. “This will allow customers to make 200-250 minutes of calls. Affordable VoIP plans will be launched for postpaid customers soon. There will be no other charges,” Bharti Airtel had said. This was to be implemented through the next few weeks. Prepaid users who had recharged before December 24 were to be allowed the use of their current data packs till their expiry.
Following Bharti Airtel’s decision to charge VoIP calls differently, consumers had expressed concern on social media, saying the company was violating the rules of net neutrality. Ravi Shankar Prasad, information technology and communications minister, had said his department would look into the matter.
“Net neutrality is a concept that might not be easily followed in India. In the West, rates are high and the availability of spectrum is higher. But in India, rates are among the lowest in the world, while the required spectrum is not available. Following net neutrality in India might lead to an unviable proposition for cellular carriers. On the other hand, if only one company introduces something like this and the entire sector stays silent, it isn’t likely to work in favour of the company. The regulator should look into the issues concerned and finalise guidelines that not only protect consumer interest but also ensure sustainability for operators,” said Hemant Joshi of Delloitte Haskins & Sells.
On Friday, Bharti Airtel had defended its move to charge different rates for VoIP calls, saying, "Through the past 20 years, we have invested Rs 1.4 lakh crore in rolling out telecommunication services in every nook and corner of the country. In addition, we have paid Rs 50,000 crore in government levies in five years. Going forward, we are committed to rolling out data networks across the country. To ensure this, our business must be viable and sustainable. Our voice services, enjoyed by each of our customers, provide us the capacity to continuously invest in and upgrade our networks on an ongoing basis. We, therefore, believe VoIP services in their current form are not tenable for us. As a result, we will charge separately for VoIP services."
It added it was committed to making VoIP services "extremely affordable and attractive by ensuring adequate minutes for a very small charge on VoIP".
Of late, Airtel has promoted its own VoIP service, Airtel Talk, to foreign callers. In India, Skype, Viber and Line are the most used platforms for VoIP. Tarun Pathak, senior analyst (mobile devices and ecosystems), Counterpoint Research, said operators shouldn't pass costs to end-consumers.
"Amid increasing global talks on net neutrality — through which regulators, associations and carriers might work together to make internet accessible, open and free to everyone —this move certainly is not on the same lines. Operators should think of smarter ways to recover investments, not pass it to end-users," he added.