Airtel Backtracks on Controversial VOIP Pricing

Last week Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest mobile service provider made a controversial announcement that they would have separate pricing protocol for VIOP (voice over internet protocol) calls. With this protocol to charge subscribers up to four times more the amount previously charged on a regular 3G data tariff plan for VIOP calls on services such as Skype and Viber that pass through its network.

In the original announcement last week the company explained the rationale behind this move, “We believe that VoIP services in their current form are not tenable for us as a business. As a result, we will charge separately for VoIP services.”

Pre-paid customers who had already purchased data plans by December 24th were allowed to use all services opted-for until they had completed or passed expiration, thereafter the new tariffs would apply.

This move has caused an outcry from its Indian user base who took to social media to express their outrage.  Within hours, a petition that had been posted to the website raising customers concerns was shared more than 20,000 times on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Additionally on the online petition site, a petition to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) calling for a reversal of Airtel’s plan under the rights of net neutrality, gathered over 2,000 signatures.

Consequently there were reports that Trai would issue a consultation paper on such OTT (over-the-top) services at some point next month. Then, yesterday, an announcement was made by the company that it had decided not to move ahead with the launch of its VoIP packages.

“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 Economic times spoke with the chairman of Traj, Rahul Kullar and reported that, the regulator was examining Airtel’s new pricings to assess whether it was in conformity with its ‘Tariff Order.’ This order 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.
Khullar told the Economic Times, “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”