Bharti Airtel’s move not to permit Voice over internet protocol (VoIP), using Skype, Viber, Line, etc, at discounted rates for its pre-paid customers has raised many questions, including the aspect of violation of net neutrality.
At present, there is no clear regulation, in India and globally, on how telecom companies should structure charges for Internet usage on handheld devices. Net neutrality, which is considered as the essential ground rule for open internet, is still a matter being discussed, considered by the regulators and industry. But, there is no regulation yet.
Even in the US, there was a proposal to provide fast-lanes for premium service providers like Netflix and Hulu who’ll be paying premium rates to the data providers in order to provide seamless service. US government has voiced against this as it would Net Neutrality at stake. Earlier in 2012, KPN and Teliasonera, two European telecom operators, had attempted to charge extra for VoIP. But they decided to reverse following huge negative reaction from customers.
Following Bharti Airtels’ announcements for differential charges, communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has also said that the Government would look into the issue.
Defending its move, Bharti Airtel on Friday said: “Over the last twenty years, we have invested over Rs 140,000 crore in rolling out telecommunications services in every nook and corner of the country. In addition, we have paid over Rs 50, 000 crore in terms of government levies in just five years. Going forward, we are committed to rolling out data networks across the country. In order to ensure this, our business must be viable and sustainable. 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.”
According to the company statement, the company is committed to making VoIP services “extremely affordable and attractive by ensuring adequate minutes for a very small charge on VoIP”.
Bharti Airtel on Friday, has announced special data packs for VoIP services. For prepaid users, VoIP exclusive pack will be priced at Rs 75 for 75 megabyte (MB) with a validity of 28 days. “This will allow customers to make between 200 and 250 minutes of calling. Similarly, affordable VoIP plans will soon be launched for postpaid customers. There would be no other charges in respective of VoIP calls,” Bharti Airtel said. However, this will be implemented over4 the next few weeks, and not immediately. Pre-paid users will be able to use current data packs, if they have recharged any before December 24, till expiry.
But, this is still not cheap as it was earlier. Bharti Airtel offers one gigabyte (GB) of data for Rs 156 (Delhi circle) to its pre-paid 2G users and Rs 249 for pre-paid 3G users. Pre-paid users, which constitutes for about 95 per cent of mobile user base, normally pay one paise per second base calling rates, thus Re 1 a minute.
Without the special VoIP data packs, Airtel said it would charge 10 paise per 10 kilobytes (KB) data usage on VoIP for its 2G users and 4 paise per 10KB for its 3G users. This one GB of data for VoIP usage or Skype use will now cost about Rs 10,000 on 2G and about Rs 4,000 on 3G network, irrespective of whether you have a data pack active on your phone.
On an average, a Skype-to-Skype voice call (without video) consumes about 350-375KB of data for one minute. Calls from Skype to mobile numbers and landline consumes about 150KB data, but this is not yet permitted in India.
If it’s a video call, Skype-to-Skype on mobile phones consumes about 3.75 megabytes (MB) of data in a minute. And, high definition video call on Skype would consume as much as 22.5MB in a minute.
So, any 2G user will end up paying about Rs 3.50-3.75 per minute for just a voice call (without video) on Skype-to-Skype on a mobile.
A 3G user will be paying a little less. His outgo will be Rs 1.40-1.48 per minute, which is still much higher than the normal call charges.
On the other hand, for a video call on Skype on mobile will cost Rs 15.42 a minute, while the HD calls will be charged as much as Rs 92.52 per minute.
And, more interestingly, 1GB of data will run out in just about two hours of video calling on Skype.
Says Tarun Pathak, Sr Analyst (Mobile Devices and Ecosystems), Counterpoint Research, operators have realised that sheer increase in mobile data usage through OTT services on their networks can’t alone offset their declining revenues. However, he adds, operators should not pass on the cost to the end consumers as it might trigger similar move from other operators in terms of offering services at differential pricing which in turn can hurt the overall growth of the Industry. “Operators always had the resources and opportunity to become what WhatsApp or other OTT players have become today but they somehow missed the trend and now it is unfair to make customers pay for that missed opportunity.”
“Globally as the discussion is going stronger on Net Neutrality where regulators, associations and carriers might work together to make internet accessible, open and free to everyone this move certainly is not on the same line and operators should think of smarter ways to recover their investments than passing it on to end users which by far is the easiest option,” adds Pathak.
Considering the charges, experts say, pre-paid user will not be using VoIP as much they have been using. “Use of Skype on mobile in India has been increased recently just because of lower data charges. Pre-paid users are essentially low spenders. While these applications, including Skype, have helped mobile operators to boost data usage in the recent quarters, such moves will essentially hamper the data growth. However, people will continue to use these services accessing wi-fi at home or office, as they would be much cheaper,” said an analyst with a management consulting firm.
On one hand, most of the operators in India are expected to follow what Bharti Airtel has done. But, this may not happen immediately. “They would rather wait and see how consumers react with Bharti Airtel’s move,” said the analyst. Meanwhile, the expected entry of Reliance Jio in the long-term evolution (LTE) space may see a different direction in the data game. They may also look at disrupting the market with aggressive pricing to fight with the established players.