December 30, 2014 | The Economic Times

Bharti Airtel withdrew its controversial VoIP tariff plan that would have made voice calls on services such as Skype and Viber more expensive in the face of a public outcry and a possible nudge from the regulator.

The company, which had last week introduced higher tariffs for voice calls made over the Internet by prepaid subscribers, said on Monday it had decided not to implement the launch of its VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) packs in view of news reports that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), would shortly issue a consultation paper on such OTT (over-the-top) services.

"Gopal Vittal (Airtel's India CEO) met with Trai chairman to understand OTT consultation process," said the company spokesperson.

"He then decided not to introduce VoIP," the spokesperson added. Trai will issue the consultation paper next month.

The regulator was examining the new price pack to assess whether it was in conformity with its 'Tariff Order', which forbids discriminatory and non-competitive pricing. One of the charges levelled against the VoIP plan was that it was discriminatory in nature as it forced users of Skype, Viber and similar services to pay more. But with Airtel withdrawing the plan, Trai will not pursue the issue further.

"I have always maintained that charging separately for VoIP calls breaches net neutrality. However, the mere fact that it breaches net neutrality doesn't make it illegal in the country as we have no laws on the issue. It would become a legal is issue only if the tariff violated the Tariff Order," Trai chairman Rahul Khullar told ET.

The company's move last week to hike rates for voice calls made over the internet by four times and make it much more expensive than internet browsing had prompted a huge consumer backlash on social media and other platforms, a factor that industry experts said played a role in the controversial tariff plan being rolled back. "Social media poses unique challenges to established brands in today's world and the public outburst on the media would be one of the reasons why the company decided to take this off the shelf," said Mahesh Uppal of Com First India, a telecom consultancy.

A call for protests over Airtel's move on a website was shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. The company was even called 'evil Santa' by many users, who even suggested asking the hacker group Anonymous to protest against Airtel's move. But the telco's decision to withdraw the VoIP price plan was met with a muted response on social media and the blogosphere as there was apprehension that this was only a temporary reprieve and that it was waiting for the regulator's recommendation on the matter.

According to industry sources, the public protest and social media backlash has also resulted in Idea Cellular and Vodafone junking their original plan of following Airtel's move to hike VoIP rates. The two companies declined to comment upon the matter.

Airtel's aborted move to charge differential rates for browsing and VoIP calls throws the spotlight once again on net neutrality, the principle that service providers will treat all data on the internet equally and not impose differential pricing or discriminate among users, content sites, apps and platforms.

"The company's VoIP strategy clearly violated net neutrality as it differentiated between two types of internet services. It is inconsistency of regulation which provides an excuse for violating net neutrality," said Uppal. Airtel had previously defended its higher tariff package on the ground that it had made investments of over Rs 140,000 crore and paid Rs 50,000 crore to the government in terms of levies.