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BIF bats for OTT regulations & level-playing field for all in Net Neutrality debate

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Broadband India Forum BIF

NEW DELHI: Broadband India Forum (BIF) has put its weight behind proposals to regulate OTT services, saying they too should be guided by same principles as ISPs and telecom service providers (TSP).

“There  should be level playing field between the ISP/TSPs  and the OTT players. OTT players need to be brought under the same regulatory regime as the ISP/TSPs,” BIF has said in a submission on a pre-consultation paper on Net Neutrality to telecoms and broadcast regulator TRAI. 

TRAI has been seeking comments since March 2015 from stakeholders on the issue of Net Neutrality and related matters like OTT, zero-rating plans and possible regulations.

Since last year, several such papers have been issued by the regulator in an effort to finalise recommendations that could possibly go on to become industry regulations. BIF briefly alluded to this “piecemeal approach and not addressing the larger subject in one go” as this was fuelling ambiguities.

Batting for plans like zero-rating offered by some Indian telcos earlier and Facebook’s FreeBasic --- since then outlawed by TRAI --- the Forum says, “At our stage of development, our highest need is internet adoption and increased data usage and whatever facilitates that, needs to be heartily supported”.

Free Data should be permitted and it should be left to the service providers (ISP/TSPs) to decide whether they want to enter into such arrangement with the content providers or not basis their business case and requirement of technical development, BIF says.

In India, OTT services are flowering every day, keeping in step with Asian trends.

Some OTT services, available in India, include Star’s Hotstar, Zee’s dittotv, Viacom18’s Voot, Sony’s SonyLiv, Arre, Times group’s Box TV, Asian companies-owned Hooq and Viu and global giants like Netflix, apart from the likes of WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube and Hike. 

No ex-ante regulation is required since there is enough competition and the market is vibrant enough, says the Forum, adding in case of violations, on ex-post basis, TRAI can examine tariff plans on a case by case basis after giving a reasonable opportunity to the operators of being heard.

Dwelling on the economics of  broadband infrastructure, BIF highlights  efficient services would require investments up to Rs 500,000 crore over the next 3-5 years. Moreover, as per Government commitments, the Digital India initiative itself will require investments to the tune of  Rs. 113,000 crore.

“It was the flexibility of service pricing that was permitted to the TSPs that led to mass adoption of voice services. A similar approach is warranted for ensuring adoption of data services. However, entrepreneurs are reluctant to start a new Internet based businesses when online customers are limited due to low adoption of data services,” BIF has said, adding that consumers are unwilling to invest in “expensive data plans” in the absence of adequate local content.

Interestingly, BIF’s stand that telecoms is a capital–intensive sector where government mandates may hamper private investments, in some way, is also echoed by Hong Kong-based Asian organisation CASBAA.

“We do not believe TRAI or the government should adopt policies that result in reducing or rationing of funds for (telecom) network investment. Advocates of `networks for all, open to all’ sometimes tend to forget that capable networks are costly, and they will not build themselves,” CASBAA had said in its submission to TRAI on Net Neutrality last year.

Cautioning against replicating some existing regulation that may impede innovation, CASBAA had said TRAI and the government must avoid seeing the online content industry as another facet of the mature television content supply industry, ripe for extension of the same regulatory approaches governing the “traditional” TV industry. 

“This would be a colossal mistake, especially at this new stage of development of online content supply in India. Overregulation will constrain development of newer business models which could be of great benefit to consumers and to India’s overall economic development,” the Asian industry organisation had said, hinting that a holistic view needs to be taken by regulators.

Similarly, BIF in its recent submission has said the question of modernization of communications regulation...should be reviewed holistically and periodically to ensure same services are treated in a technologically neutral way, while protecting consumer rights and achieving the objectives of Digital India.

The Forum has taken the initiative to define Net Neutrality in the Indian context and some key characteristics of Net Neutrality, amongst others, as:

- No Blocking

- No Throttling

- Open Internet

- No improper  prioritization (paid or otherwise)

- Open, easy and non-discriminatory access

- Recognition of at least four categories  of traffic and different traffic management techniques for different categories but having the same within each category

- Equitable regulatory treatment of similar or near-similar services

- Permission of zero rating systems.  

(1 USD = 67.4874 INR)

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