Telecom regulator Trai hopes to finalise, by May-end its views on whether Over-The-Top (OTT) services like Whatsapp and Skype should be brought under the regulatory regime, an issue on which it has kept an “open mind” and studied global best practices and European model, a top official said. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Chairman R S Sharma told PTI that the regulator has also studied the European Electronic Communications Code (European Union is amending the common rules regulating the telecom industry) and will keep global best practices in mind while formulating its opinion.
OTT services refer to applications and services that are accessible over the Internet and ride on an operator’s network. Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Hike are some of the popular and widely-used OTT services.
“We have studied the European Union’s model…they have come up with Electronic Communications Code. We have also studied global best practices and we will keep those in mind,” Sharma said.
The European Electronic Communications Code outlines updated rules for providers of mobile and fixed-line services, moots regulations for new online communications services and is a move towards harmonising a single European telecom market.
Trai is holding an open house discussion on OTT issues in Bengaluru on Wednesday and plans to have a similar one in Delhi soon. “We have an open mind, like in all consultations where we follow a set process … By May-end we should be able to formulate our recommendation or regulation on the matter,” Sharma said.
Last year, Trai had issued its consultation paper — Regulatory Framework for Over The Top Communications Services’ – to debate whether OTT players should be brought under the regulatory regime. Of late, many of these platforms have come under greater scrutiny, and the Indian government is also proposing changes in IT rules to seek greater accountability from these firms.
Trai has, however, made it clear that the scope of its current consultation would be regulatory issues and economic concerns pertaining to those OTT services that are “same or similar” to the services provided by telecom service providers (TSPs).
Its discussion paper is aimed at analysing and discussing “changes that may be required in the current regulatory framework to govern these entities; and the manner in which such changes should be affected”.
The regulator had sought the industry’s views on which OTT services should be regarded as the same or similar to those offered by telecom operators, and if “substitutability” should be the main criteria for comparison of regulatory or licensing rules applicable to TSPs and OTT service providers.
It has also asked whether “regulatory or licensing imbalance” is impacting telecom investments especially required for capacity expansions and technology upgradations, and how OTT service providers can participate in infusing investment in telecom networks.
Trai has also asked if there are issues surrounding lawful interception of OTT communication that need to be resolved in the interest of national security and whether responsibilities of OTT service providers and TSPs should be distinct.
Another issue being debated is whether there is a “non-level playing field” between OTT providers and TSPs and the regulator has sought suggestions on whether regulatory or licensing norms should be imposed on OTT service providers to fix such regulatory imbalance.
Telecom companies in India have long been demanding that OTT players be brought under the ambit of the regulatory framework, as they offer similar services without attached licencing obligations, conditions and levies (such as licence fee). However, OTTs argue that a regulatory regime for them would stifle innovation.