Not even a week after Bharti Airtel (News - Alert) Ltd., India’s largest telecom carrier, declared it would levy extra charges on subscribers using VoIP services the company has dropped the plan. Last week Airtel said its typically discounted Internet and data plans would give subscribers access to Internet browsing but would exclude VoIP services like Skype (News - Alert), Line and Viber, which are usually free.
On Friday, Airtel announced it was launching special data packs for VoIP services, priced at around $1.18 for 75 MB for 28 days for prepaid users. The company estimated customers would be able to make about 200 to 250 minutes of calls using the “affordable VoIP plans.”
The announcement caused a massive backlash and protests on social media and yesterday Airtel announced it was dropping the plan as it faced pressure from subscribers and possibly the government. According to the company, they decided not to implement the new policy based on “news reports that a consultation paper will be issued shortly by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on issues relating to services offered by OTT players including VoIP.”
“We have no doubt the consultation process will have a balanced outcome, which will not only protect all stakeholders’ interests and the sector’s viability, but also encourage much-needed investment in spectrum and the roll-out of data networks to fulfill the objective of digital India,” said Bhakti Airtel in a statement.
TRAI has not begun official consultations about the matter, but Rahul Khullar, head of the organization, said last week that Airtel’s decision to charge for VoIP was not in accordance with net neutrality, but was also not illegal based on India’s existing laws.
Net neutrality (News - Alert) is a trickier prospect in India than other global regions since data rates are some of the lowest in the world, while spectrum simply isn’t as readily available. This puts carriers in a tricky position of trying to operate affordably while also attempting to keep subscribers happy.
Indeed, Airtel had defended its original decision to charge for VoIP calls by saying the company has invested millions of dollars in telecom services over the past 20 years while also paying significant government levies, and that charging for VoIP services was a logical move to pay for its infrastructure.
How TRAI decides to handle this disparity remains to be seen, and could very well set a precedent for other nations that have struggled to recoup their communications infrastructure investments without passing the burden along to subscribers. And while U.S. carriers have not threatened to charge for VoIP calls thus far, Pennsylvania has pending legislation that would assess surcharges on VoIP calls as a way to pay for its 911 emergency infrastructure.
Edited by Maurice Nagle