India's telecom regulator has begun a discussion on a regulatory framework for apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, that are collectively called over-the-top services.
OTT includes any service provided over the internet. "Today, users can directly access these applications online from any place, at any time, using a variety of internet connected consumer devices. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to know if there is an economic difference in connecting various networks via a landline phone, cell phone, or a computer," said the consultation paper by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
OTT services are unpopular with mobile carriers such as Airtel and Vodafone, who want to earn higher revenue from such services beyond the charges incurred for data. Chat and voice calling apps like WhatsApp and Skype are often more popular than similar offerings by local carriers. OTT instant messaging services are free, and eat into SMS revenues of operators.
"They are also not involved in planning, selling, or enabling OTT apps. On the other hand, OTT providers make use of the TSPs' infrastructure to reach their customers and offer products/services that not only make money for them but also compete with the traditional services offered by TSPs," the paper said.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has been demanding regulations for OTT operators. Recently Bharti Airtel had announced differentiated pricing for voice calls over the internet but pulled back the plan after online protests by users who said Airtel was violating the principles of net neutrality. Regarded as an essential ground for open internet, net neutrality standards mean that mobile carriers should treat all data equally and not impose differential treatment or charges on different kinds of data.
The debate over net neutrality is also raging in the United States, where cable companies claim they are getting hurt because of online streaming service Netflix.
(With agency inputs)