Telcos urge Indian govt to defer net neutrality and regulate OTT players

Indian OTT players
Urging. Image by smolaw | Bigstockphoto

Indian telecom operators have urged the government to bring over-the-top (OTT) messaging and calling service providers like WhatsApp under some form of licensing regime to establish a level playing field. Otherwise, they should relax the licensing conditions and regulatory obligations for telcos if the authorities cannot apply similar obligations to app-based service providers.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents telcos like Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, has urged the government to defer net neutrality rules on telecom operators until ‘same service, same rules’ are applied to the apps.

For OTT players, telcos asked India to impose licensing regime by introducing the OTT Communication Authorization under the Unified License.

“…in India, OTT Communication Service Providers are not subjected to any form of regulatory obligation, thereby seriously denting the level playing field in the market,” S.P Kochhar, director-general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said in a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

“…it is a myth that the obligations on telcos through licensing and regulation are primarily because of installation and operation of data networks; therefore, the OTT players need not be brought in the licensing regime as they do not establish any network,” Kochhar said, suggesting that the scope of licensing goes beyond just putting up the network. It covers privacy and security and offers telecom communications services that OTT players also offer without any license. 

To establish a level playing field and protect and further incentivize Indian telcos, OTT players should be liable for similar obligations as telecom operators, who have taken all risk of investing billions in procurement of spectrum and building the core infrastructure.

The DoT had sought Indian telcos’ views on the telecom regulator’s (TRAI) recommendations on OTT players. The regulator recommended that no regulations be imposed on the OTT-based voice/video calling and messaging app until clarity emerges in the international jurisdictions.

COAI said that Indian telcos are required to set up a Lawful Interception and Monitoring (LIM) system at huge cost besides requiring to provide all the tracing facilities to the security agencies without any delay. They are also required to keep records for up to one year and keep equipment and servers within India. 

On the other hand, COAI said, confidentiality and privacy of user data is not ensured as data centres are located outside the country. 

“…OTT service providers are not required to comply with any such regulatory or licensing obligations relating to security.  They are not even providing encryption keys to security agencies. OTT communication services are being grossly misused by anti-social elements at present as there are no arrangements for monitoring,” the representative body said in its letter.

The body said that Indian telcos are mandated to adhere to strict conditions on confidentiality and protection of privacy of communication.

However, it added that no such obligation is in place for OTT players to ensure privacy. “…recent example of proposal to change the Privacy policy of users by WhatsApp clearly demonstrate that privacy of consumers is totally compromised, and OTTs can share complete data of users with any other company,” it added.

Related content: India plans to censor OTT video content after recent controversy

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