Telecom companies want OTT communication apps to be integrated into the development of e-Infra

The telecom industry will propose to the government that over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram also contribute to the creation of the country’s digital infrastructure, as they account for a large part of all network traffic.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents India’s leading telecoms operators, will also propose some definitions for OTT communications platforms, according to a draft of the bill it has prepared as part of the consultation process on India’s proposed Telecoms Law, 2022.

The current draft of the bill talks about bringing OTT communications under telecom services, but has not defined such services.

The industry body will submit its views to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), for which the deadline is November 10. ET saw a copy of the draft template.

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The COAI has again raised the issue of including communication apps in the licensing regime under the new telecom law to ensure a level playing field.

“OTT communication services are internet protocol-enabled communication services that are transmitted over underlying telecommunications or broadband network infrastructure, e.g. B. IP-based instant messaging or voice or video calling,” the COAI said in its draft. Apart from that, the COAI has also suggested that the definition of OTT as explained in the November 2018 Trai Consultation Paper or the May 2015 DoT Committee Report on Net Neutrality may be considered.

According to COAI, a level playing field for all technologies must be guaranteed – for example rules for the same service and the same rules.

“While the industry encourages the adoption of new technologies and services by different players, it is important to ensure that a level playing field among players is not distorted,” the industry association said.

Currently, telcos pay more than 30% of their revenue to the government in the form of taxes and duties, while OTT providers pay nothing even though both offer the same services. In terms of security requirements, telecom operators have to follow the rules, but not the OTT players.

The government has made its stance clear that customer protection is a must and everyone, including OTT players, must follow the know-your-customer (KYC) process for user verification. The telecom industry has unequivocally supported the provision in the bill. “Each company uniquely identifies the person for whom it provides services through an auditable form of identification as may be required,” the COAI said.

Operators have also emphasized that companies that generate network traffic and costs, such as OTT streaming, gaming and social media companies, make little or no economic contribution to the development of national telecom networks.

“With the rollout of 5G and a newer generation of bandwidth-hungry applications and services to come, the need to create appropriate mechanisms and stakeholder input to create a digital infrastructure needs to be reconsidered. This would require a broader debate between telcos, OTTs and big tech companies,” the COAI said. The contribution of OTTs to network costs can be based on assessable criteria such as traffic volume, revenue threshold, number of users, and other criteria.

Operators believe that they should not be required to contribute to the Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF), formerly called the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), as they make significant investments in creating the network infrastructure.

“In addition, a sizeable USO fund remains unused with the government. Therefore, the USO fund levy on TSPs (telecom service providers) should be abolished,” the COAI said. Currently, telcos pay 5% of their Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) to the USO levy.

The DoT released the draft telecoms law for public consultation in September. Over the course of two months, DoT officials and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw have held meetings with stakeholders including telecom operators and technology companies. During these meetings, the Ministry assured the industry that their views would be taken into account in the revised bill.

Officials said DoT told tech firms that its intent to regulate OTT communication apps was due to security concerns, not licensing purposes. It believes that OTT needs to be regulated as the majority of communication happens through apps, which is difficult to track compared to traditional voice calls and messages. But telecom operators want the same regulations for OTTs as theirs.

According to a senior DoT official, 60-70% of voice calls currently happen through these apps. For example, the messaging app WhatsApp India is one of its largest markets with more than half a billion users. According to experts, WhatsApp accounts for the bulk of calls made through communication apps in India.

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