Want grows to control OTT communication gamers as voice calls surge
The move to regulate over-the-top (OTT) communication players such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram is driven by a multifold increase in voice calls over these platforms that are hard to track, creating challenges, including in relation to national security and financial fraud, government officials said.
According to a senior Department of Telecommunications (DoT) official, 60-70% of voice calls are currently taking place over these apps. For example, social media major WhatsApp counts India as its largest market, with over 500 million users and accounts for a bulk of the calls made over communication apps, say experts.
Telecom operators ET spoke with said that while a substantive portion of voice calls is via OTT, it is difficult to quantify in percentage terms, as all this happens over data sessions, which can be measured in bytes and not minutes.
Data consumption has shot up manifold over the past few years, with 4G services being a key catalyst. An average subscriber of telecom market leader Reliance Jio consumed 20.8 GB a month during April-June. The numbers were 19.9 GB for Bharti Airtel and 14.6 GB for Vodafone Idea for the quarter.
In comparison, subscribers used to consume just over 1 GB a month on average in 2017-18, shows government data.
India has more than 500 million smartphone users. Both, the number of smartphone users and data consumption, are expected to increase with the launch of 5G.
In such a scenario, officials said, it becomes important on all platforms that allow voice communication and messaging follow certain safeguards with respect to consumer protection and national security.
Easier to Track Illegal Activities
According to DoT officials, while voice calls can be easily tracked in case of issues of national importance like security, it is not possible for OTT calls.
Telecom operators are mandated to store call details record (CDR) of all voice calls for at least a year. CDR data comes in handy when required by security agencies. There is no such requirement for OTT calls at present.
The government now wants to frame a mechanism under which the license conditions for OTT apps would include local storing of data for a certain period. So, all OTT platforms offering communication services would have to ensure user verification through the know-your-customer (KYC) process.
Enabling these provisions will allow law enforcement agencies to track illegal activities using OTT platforms. Officials said most online financial scams are through OTT calls and it becomes impossible to reach the culprits due to lack of data.
Level playing field
If OTT voice calls are regulated, platforms such as WhatsApp may be forced to store data in India and do KYC on the lines of telcos, experts say. OTT players oppose any move to be included under telecom laws, saying they are already regulated by the Information Technology Act and further regulation will stifle innovation.
DoT has come out with a draft telecom Bill, in which the definition of telecom services has been expanded to include OTT communication services. Although there is confusion around implementation, the department has indicated it plans to regulate communication apps for security and consumer protection.
Telecom operators, meanwhile, argue for the ‘same service, same rule’ principle. According to a telco executive, they pay levies and buy spectrum in auction to offer voice and messaging services, while OTT platforms run on their infrastructure and pay nothing.
Apps have historically countered telcos’ claims, saying operators benefit from rising data usage by charging subscribers.
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