Airtel Withdraws VoIP Charges But It Isn’t Due To Consumer Outrage

Airtel has withdrawn the VoIP packs which started the debate of net neutrality in the country. However it isn't because of customer outrage but a well thought move

Airtel India Net neutrality

Thanks to Bharti Airtel’s recent decision to launch selective pricing for VOIP data packs for Skype and Viber, awareness on net neutrality is picking up in India. Besides the largest operator in the country has now decided to park its decision. But it isn’t like Airtel has cracked up under pressure following the consumer outrage on social media and by online publications, as reports suggest. The roll back is a smart move from Airtel.

Late last week, before the Christmas mood could set in, Airtel decided to introduce differential pricing based on type of mobile Internet usage. Initially reported by Telecom Talk, Airtel had begun by charging consumers differently for using the mobile Internet for services such as Skype and Viber, and differently for other types of mobile Internet usage. The data policy said : “All Internet/data packs or plans (through which customer can avail discounted rate) shall only be valid for internet browsing and will exclude VoIP (Both incoming/ Outgoing). VoIP over data connectivity would be charged at standard data rates of 4p / 10 KB (3G service) and 10p / 10 KB (2G service).”

The selective pricing specially for VoIP services that have threatened Airtel in this data driven Internet economy, added up to Rs. 10,000 per GB on 2G network and up to Rs. 4,000 per GB on 3G network to a user. This also stirred the ongoing global debate of net neutrality in the country.

Net neutrality is the principle by which Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally not discriminating or charging deferentially by user, content, site, platform, among other things. US is already witnessing an extensive debate on the issue. In fact US President Barack Obama has also called for new regulations to protect net neutrality. However, his call for greater regulation of internet as utility has stunned major telecoms, lobbyist groups and politicians.

Airtel’s pricing violated the principles of net neutrality; it is now moving from “There’s an App for That” to “There’s a pack for that”, pointed Medianama“In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access, because, well, we don’t have fast and slow lanes: all lanes are slow.”

With almost every online publication covering the news and showcasing how Airtel was violating the principles of net neutrality, the Government assured to take a look at it. “We will look into it. Government will come back with structured response,” Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on the sidelines of ‘Good Governance Day’ event organised by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology.

The minister’s assurance hit a setback in a couple of days, with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chief Rahul Khullar saying that Airtel cannot be faulted for charging separately for VoIP plans as there is no set rule or any framework which states that net neutrality should be maintained. Speaking to The Financial Express, Trai Chief expressed that while Airtel’s move is not in accordance with net neutrality, it did not smack of any kind of illegality. “Let’s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there’s no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator.”

Giving a much-needed support to the operators in the country, he further informed that, going ahead Trai will bring over-the-top (OTT) players like Viber and Skype under some sort of regulation and is in the process of bringing out a consultation paper on the subject.

Highlighting several ways on how OTT players could be brought under regulation, Rahul Khullar informed that there could be licensing norms for them also wherein they have to pay licence fees to the government on a revenue-share basis. The other option, which is simpler, is that a termination charge is put on calls originating from Viber or Skype kind of services.

Bringing back licensing norms in discussion Trai has once again touched the topic of regulating communications via messaging. Airtel has been lobbying hard to bring messaging apps under certain regulations. However the pleas so far haven’t received much ground from Trai. Last we heard on this matter was that Trai was working on a discussion paper to better understand Over The Top services such as WhatsApp and Viber which the organisation cannot regulate as of now.

However, after interpreting the latest thoughts of Trai Chief – “All these issues would be debated through the consultation paper which should be out by next month,” regulating messaging apps and bringing a net neutrality law are going to be two big news in 2015.

Trai had been working on a consultation paper for sometime now, so why did Airtel introduce selective pricing now and start a net neutrality debate in the country? It isn’t rocket science to understand the motive – introduce such prices, be prepared for the uproar and then roll back by bringing Trai into picture by pushing a net neutrality law.

Airtel might justify it’s intentions which have been fisked by Medianama“Over the last twenty years, we have invested over Rs. 140, 000 crores in rolling out telecommunications services in every nook and corner of the country. In addition, we have paid over Rs. 50, 000 crore in terms of government levies in just 5 years.” But it isn’t ethical to be charged not just for how much of the Internet we use, but also how we use it.

For now the ball is in Trai’s court. Airtel may have withdrawn the VoIP packs for now but it is a smart move by bringing in Trai, push for a regulation on messaging apps that are killing its business and finally bring a net neutrality law. This also gives a clear hint that it won’t be too late before Airtel introduces selective and better packages for those services that join its oneTouchInternet app.

Looks like Airtel wants to drive mobile internet usage in the country single handily but is it fair? Trai should take a neutral stand.

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