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Same service, same rules: Telecom operators body roots for parity with OTT communication services, says level playing field must

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Telecom operators’ association COAI has made a strong pitch for ‘same service, same rules’ with regard to OTT communication services, arguing that a level playing field needs to be maintained for all technologies.

OTT, or over-the-top, communication apps such as WhatsApp and others offer voice and video calling.

The regulatory conditions and treatment “must be made uniformly applicable for similarly placed players”, the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) said in a statement.
“…There is a need to ensure a level playing field among all technologies, that is Same Service Same Rules with respect to OTT Communication Services, so that fair and healthy competition prevails in the industry,” COAI said.

The industry body said it welcomes inclusion of OTT communication services in the recently released draft Indian Telecommunication Bill 2022.

“However, in order to bring comprehensiveness and avoid any possible ambiguity, COAI is of the considered view that the OTT Communication services need to be defined in the draft Telecom Bill,” it added.

COAI claimed that certain quarters “based on misinformed views” have opined that the principle of ‘Same Service, Same Rules’ may not be applicable for OTT communication services.

“It has been erroneously suggested that Telecom Services and OTT Applications do not operate on the same layer, when in fact; services such as calls (voice/video) whether provided by the TSPs (telecom service providers) or the OTT Apps, operate on the same layer, essentially riding on the network layer,” COAI contended.

The industry body was also dismissive of the opinion that a framework for regulating OTTs and bringing them on par with telcos is not needed as operators have spectrum, numbering resources, interconnect and Right of Way (RoW) for setting Infrastructure.

COAI pointed out that operators, in fact, undergo a government-mandated process for allocation of spectrum and numbering resources by undertaking critical commitments and deliverables, while investing heavily in networks.

“OTTs, on the other hand, are free from any of these obligations, but enjoy all the privileges of delivering the same services, without having to bear any of the regulatory obligations, security obligations, investment or network requirements,” said COAI, whose members include Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

Telcom service providers are subject to regulatory obligations such as security, service quality, subscriber verification, anti-spam, strict compliances, and various audits.

OTT communication service providers, on the other hand, are not subjected to any form of regulation.

“This seriously dents the level playing field in the market,” COAI said.

The association went on to say that telcos pay exorbitant levies and taxes in terms of license fee and other charges, while OTT communication service providers, who ride on telcos’ networks, are not subjected to such levies, “thus causing loss to the Government exchequer”.

Moreover, OTT players consume massive bandwidth, exerting tremendous pressure on the network infrastructure established by the operators. The OTT players gain massive direct and indirect benefits without incurring any additional costs.

“With advent of new technologies and advancement of the telecom ecosystem to entail such services/products, it is only logical that the new Telecom Bill brings OTT Communication services under a proper regulatory framework, as required for any legitimate sector,” according to COAI.

If not, then the license conditions and regulatory obligations for the telcos too should be equally relaxed, it added. 



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