Bharti Airtel drops plan to charge internet calls, for now

Bharti Airtel Ltd has dropped its controversial decision to charging customers for phone calls made using free messaging services such as Skype and Viber apps on cellphones and tablets, buckling under pressure and for fear of exodus of customers.

"In view of the news reports that a consultation paper will be issued shortly by TRAI on issues relating to services offered by OTT (over the top content) players, including VoIP, we have decided not to implement our proposed launch of VoIP packs," Bharti Airtel said in a statement today.

Bharti Airtel, the country's leading telecom player had on Friday said it would introduce special subscription packs for people who wanted to use the internet-based services.

The operator had proposed to charge VoIP calls on pay as you go basis, at standard data rates of 4 paise per 10 KB on 3G network and 10 paise per 10 KB on 2G network. Besides, it had also announced special VoIP packs.

Bharti's decision to unilaterally end ''net neutrality'' the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, had invited wide criticism from cellphone users.

The proposed fee, if implemented, would also mean that app developers would need to pay operators before creating certain kinds of new apps or services.

"We have no doubt that as a result of the consultation process a balanced outcome would emerge that would not only protect the interests of all stakeholders and viability of this important sector but would also encourage much needed investments in spectrum and roll out of data networks to fulfill the objective of digital India," Airtel had said.

The government had earlier said it would look into the company's plans to charge for such services, which have been free.

Telecom regulator TRAI's chairman Rahul Khullar, however, defended Bharti's move, although he agreed that Bharti's proposal as being against the principles of net neutrality. He also said he would seek public views on usage of such apps.

''What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there is no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator,'' reports quoted Khullar as saying.

Net neutrality is an issue in other parts of the world, particularly in the US. Earlier this year the online video-streaming service Netflix Inc clashed with broadband providers there who want Netflix to cover the cost of handling its traffic on their networks.

Bharti's move came amidst operators demand that app firms share part of their revenue with them. The telecom companies argue that they have invested billions of dollars in buying frequencies, building communication infrastructure and marketing their services to gain new subscribers.

Bharti said it has invested over Rs1,40,000 crore ($22 billion) in rolling out communications services across the country for the past 20-years, apart from paying Rs50,000 crore ($7.86 billion) as levies to the government in ''just five years.'' ''Going forward we are committed to rolling out data networks across the country,'' it said. ''In order to ensure this, our business must be viable and sustainable.''