TRAI begins consultation on whether OTT services need a regulatory framework

OTT service providers argue that a regulatory regime for them would stifle innovation.

Telecom regulator TRAI on Monday issued a long-awaited consultation paper to debate whether Over-The-Top (OTT) services, including Whatsapp and Skype, should be brought under the regulatory regime.

The discussion paper titled 'Regulatory Framework for Over The Top Communications Services' 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 effected", a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) statement said.

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 examples of popular and widely-used OTT services.

WhatsApp, Hike and Skype are the most popular OTT services in India.

WhatsApp, Hike and Skype are the most popular OTT services in India.

TRAI has asserted 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).

The regulator has 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 network investments especially required for capacity expansions and technology upgradations, and how OTT service providers can participate in infusing investment in the telecom networks.

"Would inter-operability among OTT services and also inter-operability of their services with TSPs services promote competition and benefit the users," the Trai consultation paper said, asking stakeholders to state measures that can be taken to promote competition.

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.

TRAI has asked if there is an issue of "non-level playing field" between OTT providers and TSPs giving same or similar services and 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 in the ambit of the regulatory framework, as they offer similar services without attached licencing obligations, conditions and levies (such as licence fee). In addition, telecom operators also have to abide by stringent service quality benchmarks and invest in networks and infrastructure.

However, OTTs argue that a regulatory regime for them would stifle innovation.

"The objective of this consultation paper is to analyse and discuss the implications of the growth of OTTs; the relationship between OTT players and TSPs; the similarity, if any, between services provided by the TSPs and OTT players...," TRAI said.

When contacted, industry body COAI said that it is in the process of examining the consultation paper. Cellular Operators' Association of India (COAI) Director General Rajan Mathews told PTI that the association will come out with its detailed response in a few days after the members discuss the nuances of the OTT consultation paper.

Asked if Trai's latest move has come as a relief to the COAI which has been flagging the absence of level playing field between OTTs and TSPs, Mathews said the consultation paper is useful and hoped that it would lead to "equitable solution" in terms of "same service same rules" as is being demanded by telecom players.

Trai has asked the industry to give its views on various issues raised in the consultation paper by 10 December, 2018, and counter comments by 24 December, 2018.

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