The news is both good and bad for users of free online messaging services like WhatsApp, Viber, Hike, and Skype, and worrisome for social media giant Facebook.
A high-level government committee supports the free-messaging services and goes to the extent of saying all impediments in their path must be removed.
However, its report , put out on the web on Thursday, says voice calls made using the internet do not adhere to regulation, leaving telecom service providers —Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and others — at a disadvantage because they have to follow licence norms.
The document also leaves some issues unresolved, including that of the controversial zero-rating model, on which the telecom regulator must take the final decision as questions of tariff setting and quality of services are in the TRAI’s domain.
The report makes one more distinction, between international voice calls made using the internet and those within the country. It favours a “liberal approach” to international calls. But domestic calls, it says, should follow the same regulation as telecom service providers.
If that were to happen, the consumer may no longer be able to use them for free because costs will go up.
A one-minute standard voice call on the mobile phone, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, costs the customer 50 paise. A call made using the internet costs just 4p but its quality is often compromised and not as good as that of telecom services.
The committee — chaired by K Bhargava, adviser for technology to the department of telecommunications — is not kind to Facebook’s Internet.org and sees it playing the role of a “gatekeeper”, at least till April this year, when it was giving free access only to a few websites.
One month later, the platform was thrown open to all websites that met certain criteria designed to bring more people on to the internet in an efficient and economical manner.
Internet.org is Facebook’s partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Reliance and Qualcomm. It seeks to make internet use more affordable in the developing countries. But it has drawn criticism for violating the principle of net neutrality, which says all internet traffic should be treated as equal whether it carries voice, text, images, or video.
The panel’s much-awaited findings came roughly three months after a viral social media campaign garnered over a million signatures in support of net neutrality after widespread anger over a controversial plan by telecom service provider Airtel.
The report leaves it to the TRAI to decide on services like Airtel Zero, which, too, make certain websites free to access on its internet service. Those websites pay Airtel for it.
The principle of net neutrality has been a subject of intense debate in the country in the last few months, more so after Airtel Zero started.