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Net neutrality: DoT favours regulation of WhatsApp, Viber calls

The debate over net neutrality is far from over, it seems. The report released by the Department of Telecom (DoT) on Thursday is unlikely to smooth the ruffled feathers of lakhs of telecom subscribers in India. TOI too has been advocating the cause of net neutrality since the debate started.The report has favoured policy regulation that could eventually put curbs or tax popular messaging and calling services like WhatsApp and Viber. Interestingly, the report's tone seems to indicate that the regulator supports the rights of the internet subscribers to visit and use any services and applications "without restrictions". This obviously is in light of the massive groundswell of support in favour of net neutrality, with Trai getting over a million emails during the consultation process. However, the 'support' for Net Neutrality has been masked quite well and Trai has actually talked about bringing OTT services, especially the ones offering domestic voice calling, under the same regulatory framework as that for the domestic telecom operators. This means Trai has favoured regulation for calls made over third-party apps like Whatsapp and Viber in line with what the telecom service providers have been demanding. The net neutrality report says in its fifth recommendation that "User rights on the Internet need to be ensured so that TSPs/ISPs do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, post any legal content, application or service on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use."This means the use of a number of services that use active internet such as voice-based messaging and calling apps like WhatsApp and Viber cannot be restricted or stopped by the carriers on the pretext of revenue loss. DoT seems to have further supported it in point number 6 by saying: "OTT application services ... enhance consumer welfare and increase productivity. Therefore, such services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed." However, the regulator has paved the way for further deliberation in policy formulation where the domestic calling through such services is concerned while okaying voice calls outside the country's borders. International calls using the internet through voice over internet protocol (VoIP) is already allowed under the present policy framework.  "The existence of a pricing arbitrage in VoIP OTT communication services requires a graduated and calibrated public policy response. In case of OTT VoIP international calling services, a liberal approach may be adopted," says the report in its point number 10. "However, in case of domestic calls (local and national), communication services by TSPs and OTT communication services may be treated similarly from a regulatory angle for the present. The nature of regulatory similarity, the calibration of regulatory response and its phasing can be appropriately determined after public consultations and TRAI's recommendations to this effect." By slipping in this recommendation, DoT seems to have actually supported the ISP lobby's demand to bring OTT services under the same regulatory and licensing framework that they have to follow. It is unlikely that this move will go down well with the consumers who have been demanding  such services not be taxed as they already pay for data charges for using these services.
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