By Yuvraj Gurung | December 26, 2014

The Indian Government will look into Airtel’s plan to charge separately for VoIP (voice calls over Internet) services offered by apps like Skype, Viber, and Line.

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According to a statement on the website of the Indian telecom giant, “All internet/data packs or plans (through which customer can avail discounted rate) shall only be valid for internet browsing and will exclude VoIP (both incoming/ outgoing). VoIP over data connectivity would be charged at standard data rates of 4p/10 KB (3G service) and 10p/10 KB (2G service)”.

Based on standard rates, usage of each GB of data for VoIP on its 3G network will cost about US$63, while the same on the 2G network will cost about US$157. Typically, 250-300 KB of data is consumed for an online voice call that lasts one minute. Hence, if a person uses a messaging app such as Viber or Skype to make a call, with the new tariff a user will be charged Rs 1- Rs 1.5 (US$0.02) per minute for data charges.

The popularity of apps like Whatsapp, Skype, and others, where users can text or make calls without having to pay extra money, has long been a bone of contention with telecom carriers, who say these services use their infrastructure to make money.

Earlier this year, India’s telecom companies, including Airtel, demanded regulation for over-the-top (OTT) companies or providers of apps like WhatsApp and Viber that would make them pay connectivity charges to telecom companies and share revenue with the government as well. The proposal was rejected by the government.

“We have made some revisions in the composition of our data packs, and will offer VoIP connectivity through an independent pack that will be launched shortly,” Airtel said in a statement. “Our customers can continue enjoying voice calls over data connectivity by opting for this VoIP pack, or simply use VoIP services on [a] pay-as-you-go basis.”

Net Neutrality? What’s that?

Net Neutrality is the principle according to which government and service providers should treat all data on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.

This means that consumer experience will not be determined by how the telecom operator or ISP distinguishes between internet companies or apps. Airtel’s action of carving the VoIP from a data plan violates the principle.

This practice could have a far-reaching impact on consumers in India. The idea of restricting discounted plans for specialized use may sound harmless to start with, but picture this: Airtel starts a video streaming service and provides an incentive for users to buy a premium account with subsidies on the data plan limited to videos streaming. At the same time, it could also decide that streaming YouTube on its network will be more expensive. The provider can now control access to YouTube by making it slightly slower and access to its own service faster. Fair play? Most consumers would not think so.

As more telecommunication companies enter into the sphere of video-on-demand, messaging applications, and more online services which compete with third-party apps like Skype or WhatsApp, the Indian user could end up paying more than they had bargained for.