There is little merit in the Government wanting to confer on licensed telecom players a monopoly over voice telephony.

The Government’s apparent inclination to re-examine the ‘legality’ of internet telephony services now on offer, is most unfortunate. Senior telecom department officials are on record as suggesting that Skype and Google, the two most prominent entities in this area, are committing an illegality because they are not paying anything to the Government. Not only is this view patently anti-consumer, it also betrays a fundamental ignorance of technology advancements. It is true that Indian telecom companies, which are forking out huge licence fees, are also seeking to launch similar voice over internet services. But the analogy is flawed one. Telecom firms pay for the spectrum that the Government has allocated to them. They can use this scarce natural resource to offer all types of voice or data services. Net telephony players, on the other hand, do not ‘own’ any spectrum. They are merely offering a service on top of a telecom network, similar to YouTube or even email.

The basic difference between voice calls on a telecom network and net telephony lies in the transmission process. In the former, the voice signals get carried over a complex network of switches, routers and exchanges, whereas in the latter, these are broken down into packets and transmitted over the World Wide Web. Calls on net telephony, therefore, cost a fraction of that made through regular telecom networks. Telecom players had no real issues with net telephony so long as the talking was confined to between one PC and another. The ‘level-playing field’ cries have grown only with the onset of smartphones having superior processing power that make them just computers by another name. These have, then, enabled net telephony to be used as an application on mobile devices. So, instead of making calls sitting near one’s PCs, it may be easier to download applications such as Skype or Google Chat on each other’s smartphones and make calls freely on the move.

If technology has progressed to this level, it would be reactionary to deny consumers the benefits of that on grounds of creating a level-playing field for telecom firms. That concern, in any case, is uncalled for here. Consumers, after all, pay telecom companies the applicable data rates for watching videos on YouTube. They would, likewise, pay for using bandwidth to make video calls through Skype. The more calls they make, the more bandwidth they consume and the more money the telecom companies make. So, where is the loss? The Government should simply junk the idea of making voice telephony a God-given right of only licensed telecom operators, or give them the sole monopoly to offer video-calling services. At the current rate, we might even see a ban on instant messaging services like WhatsApp or Google Talk — again on similar logic that they eating into operators’ revenues from SMS!

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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