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WhatsApp, Skype regulatory framework: Trai decision within a month

Kiran Rathee
WhatsApp, Skype, regulatory framework, TRAI, over-the-top, industry news

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) will decide within a month or so whether over-the-top (OTT) communication applications like WhatsApp, Skype etc, should be brought under a regulatory framework. If it decides to bring them under such a framework then these apps will have to get licences from the government to operate just as telecom operators have to currently do.

The telecom operators have been urging since long for same service same rules for OTT players, a move which has met with stiff opposition from internet activists and associations representing digital application providers.

Trai chairman RS Sharma, who chaired an open house discussion on the matter on Monday, said the telecom service providers (TSPs) have been saying that there is a regulatory imbalance because the OTTs are also providing same or similar services as them but while TSPs are governed by a definite set of obligations under their licensing conditions, no such obligations are applicable on OTTs. The regulator had come out with a consultation paper on the issue last year and it has received large number of comments on the same.

In a month or so, we will be coming out with our set of recommendations, or regulations or order. I cannot say at this time what will be the form of our outcome, Sharma said.

With the growth of data, OTTs have become partners of telecom operators and therefore, even the telcos are not supporting tough regulations or charging of licence fees etc. but there should be some kind of accountability for the internet platforms.

For instance, Reliance Jio, which has got an all IP-based network, said OTTs should be kept out of financial and regulatory obligations but when it comes to national security and data protection, same rules should be uniformly applied to all. An official from Jio said in case of telecom operators, they have to keep a record of call data and share information with security agencies whenever asked like origin of calls and person using a particular number. However, no such obligation is applied to OTT apps. Similarly, security agencies can tap phone calls and operators have to give access while OTTs players are not bound by any such rules.

To an argument that no new regulatory framework is required for OTT players as they are already covered under the IT Act, Bharti Airtel s regulatory head Ravi Gandhi said even telecom operators are covered under the Telegraph Act, still they are part of the licensing regime of the department of telecommunications (DoT). Similarly, Reliance Jio said there is no obligation in IT Act for OTTs to share data while TSPs have to share data with security agencies as per licence agreement.

The OTT players have been saying that their services are different from mobile operators as they transmit communication data over IP networks and there is no dedicated end to end channel being established for the duration of the communication. This is in contrast with traditional voice services offered by TSPs which function with a circuit-switched PSTN architecture. However, telcos refuted the claim as all the modern telecom networks are IP-based. Technology-wise, services are not different as telcos are running voice over LTE (VoLTE) networks. However, VoLTE voice is regulated but OTT voice is not regulated, Gandhi said.
The OTT players should be brought under rules to an extent that they are also regulated for same communication services offered by telecom operators.