In a move that can end the free regime for domestic calls made through Internet messenger services such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, an official panel has suggested that they be benchmarked against regular telecom service providers for tariff and regulation.
Yet, it has said other communication services offered by them dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulation. "For these application services, there is no case for prescribing regulatory oversight similar to conventional communication services," it said.
"Under existing telecom licensing conditions, Internet telephony is permitted under restricted conditions. But pricing the arbitrage of OTT (over-the-top) domestic voice communication services has the potential of significantly disrupting existing telecom revenue models," the panel said.
"The existence of a regulatory arbitrage, in addition to the pricing arbitrage, adds a degree of complexity that requires a graduated and calibrated public policy response to bring about a level playing field," said the committee that was asked to look at the whole gamut of net neutrality.
The panel, headed by technocrat A.K. Bhargava, said the tariff plans offered by telecom and Internet service providers must conform to the government's principles of net neutrality, and the the watchdog asked to examine the tariffs in accordance with the stated objectives.
"Legitimate traffic management practices may be allowed but should be tested against the core principles of net neutrality," it said, but wanted a "liberal regime" for voice telephony over the Internet for international calling services.
Still an evolving concept, net neutrality means governments and Internet service providers must treat all data and services on the Internet equally, and must not levy differential tariffs for usage, content, platform, sites, application or mode of commun“cation.
Reacting to the report, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) said India already had enough regulations on the Net telephony and there was no need to further bring a licensing or revenue share arrangement between the various types of service providers.
"This will disrupt VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) and will also skew any further innovation in the same field which is need of the hour," it said.
"We need to facilitate OTT services. The idea is not to increase regulatory burden on OTT players but to reduce it on telecom players. The committee is suggesting a higher regulatory burden on OTT players, which is retrograde," said Mahesh Uppal, director of telecom consultancy Com First.
"Instead, it should have sought to equate the regulatory burden by reducing the burden on telecom players," Uppal told IANS.
The committee said the primary goals of net neutrality should be directed towards achievement of developmental aims of the country by facilitating universal, affordable broadband with a good quality of service for its citizens.
"Over-the-top application services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed," the report added.
"As recognized in today's report, we introduced the Internet.org platform to promote an internet access model that is open and non-exclusive," said Kevin Martin, vice-president for Mobile and Global Access Policy at Facebook.
"We welcome the Department of Telecom's engagement and consultation process and are committed to working with all stakeholders to overcome the infrastructure, affordability and social barriers that exist today and to bring more people in India online," Martin added.
However, a non-governmental organisation, Telecom Watchdog, reacting to the report has written to the Prime Minister's Office, condemning it.
"The report's key recommendations, if implemented, would impact crores of subscribers. On the face of it, the recommendations look like as if it supports 'net neutrality', but in fact the details are contrary. It is anti-consumers and bad for the business of Digital India," the letter said.
The report also said national security is paramount, regardless of treatment of net neutrality.
"The measures to ensure compliance of security related requirements from OTT service providers, need to be worked out through inter-ministerial consultation."