Couple of days after silently changing its mobile internet data policy, India’s largest telecom provider, Airtel, has detailed its new VoIP exclusive data plans which will be applicable to its prepaid customers to start with. The new VoIP exclusive pack will be priced at Rs. 75 for 75MB with a validity of 28 days. Airtel claims that the minuscule 75MB of data is good enough to make 200 to 250 minutes of voice calls over the internet.
Trying to justify its anti-net neutrality stance, Airtel says in a press statement that it has invested over Rs.140,000 crores in rolling out telecommunications services across the country. More importantly, Airtel points towards Rs.50,000 crores (~USD 8 billion) it has paid as taxes to the government in the past 5 years. Indirectly, Airtel is blaming the license fee levied by TRAI/government which are arguably pretty high compared to other countries.
Our voice services that are enjoyed by every one of our customers provides us the capacity to continuously invest in and upgrade our networks on an ongoing basis. We, therefore, believe that VoIP services in their current form are not tenable for us as a business. As a result, we will charge separately for VoIP services.
Reading between the lines, it seems Airtel is claiming that the telecom license allows it to monetize voice, which they presume includes VoIP. This is the right time for TRAI/DoT to jump in and clear the air. Also, Airtel feels threatened by the likes of Skype, Viber (and soon, WhatsApp) killing its core voice call business.
But the issue is not just with consumers paying more for VoIP calls, but with the manner in which Airtel is trying to differentiate data. ISPs are not expected to snoop on the customers data to point and map what each user is up to. In order to know that the user is making a VoIP call, Airtel will need to do something called Deep Packet Inspection which is the worst form on snooping and filtering. Of course, Airtel isn’t ready to tell us how exactly they are able to differentiate VoIP calls from other data, but from what we understand, there’s no easy way out which doesn’t break the very base on which Internet was built.
Airtel will be pushing this new policy in a phased manner. Although there’s no mention of actual dates for the launch of these new VoIP exclusive data packs, Airtel confirms that users will be informed individually about the new charges in advance. Postpaid customers who have purchased data plans before 24th December 2014 are entitled to use all services opted-for till their packs are consumed or expire, following which, the new terms & conditions on VoIP usage will apply.
So what’s next? Video pack? Text pack?
Update: Airtel has withheld the proposed VoIP exclusive data packs. Here’s their full statement-
In view of the news reports that a consultation paper will be issued shortly by TRAI on issues relating to services offered by OTT players including VOIP, we have decided not to implement our proposed launch of VoIP packs.
We have no doubt that as a result of the consultation process a balanced outcome would emerge that would not only protect the interests of all stakeholders and viability of this important sector but would also encourage much needed investments in spectrum and roll out of data networks to fulfil the objective of digital India.
This is hardly a time to rejoice as the ball is now in TRAI’s court, who isn’t making the right noise about the issue. Till the time TRAI is talking about OTTs (Over the Top players), there is not much hope for Net Neutrality in India. This is bound to come back to haunt us soon.