The possible regulation of over-the-top (OTT) services like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook are making headlines following a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee hearing on the issue.
While regulation is one option on the table, there is also talk that some mobile operators want to charge higher prices for data used on voice services.
Nadim Mohamed, an investment analyst at First Avenue Investment Management, said on Business Day TV that operators in the United States have asked for the freedom to bill higher rates for data when used for voice services.
This is nothing new. In South Africa, Vodacom and MTN have already filed higher data prices for VoIP with South Africa’s telecommunications regulator Icasa.
Vodacom lodged a tariff of R10 per MB for VoIP traffic, while MTN lodged a tariff of R25 per MB.
MTN warns users in its terms and conditions that: “You will also be charged retrospectively at R21.93 per Megabyte (VAT excluded) [R25 per MB VAT included] for any VoIP traffic.”
Vodacom told MyBroadband it does not intend to charge higher rates for “unmanaged OTT voice services” provided through the open Internet.
Consumer backlash concern
While some operators may consider charging higher rates for VoIP traffic, the consumer backlash which will follow could be devastating.
Telecommunications regulation lawyer Dominic Cull said that the real issue regarding OTT services is net neutrality.
“Once I pay for the data, a service provider cannot dictate to me how I use it or what services I access,” said Cull.
Mohamed shared this view, saying that “a Meg is a Meg”. “I do not want to be treated differently when I want to use my Meg on voice instead of visiting a website,” he said.
He said there is a lot of discussion regarding the issue, and that many countries are leaning towards net neutrality – where all data is treated equally.
The battle in favour of OTT services has not been won yet, however. In Morocco, VoIP and OTT services were recently blocked.
On 5 January, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, and FaceTime were blocked by Morocco’s three operators – Maroc Telecom, Meditel, and Inwi.
While this is unlikely to happen in South Africa, the debate over OTT services is set to continue for some time to come.