The future of mobile operators in India lies in data services, says Rahul Khullar, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. However, over-the-top (OTT) players like WhatsApp and Facebook, who provide voice and SMS services over the internet, may not yet be a threat to the domestic operators due to underdeveloped smartphone and broadband penetration. In an exclusive interview with FE’s Jayati Ghose and Rishi Raj, Khullar explains why telcos should focus on innovating data services and how the telecom environment is expected to evolve in India. Excerpts:
How disruptive can WhatsApp be when it launches voice calls in India? How will it impact incumbent telecom operators?
Skype that allows Skype-to-Skype calls over the internet has existed in India for over 10 years. It is legal to call a computer from another computer and that could continue. However, I do not see the government opening up the sector to OTT players like Facebook and WhatsApp by granting them mobile licences. This should protect the investments made by incumbent domestic telcos to provide mobile voice and data services.
But OTT players such as Viber, Facebook and WhatsApp provide cheap voice calls over the internet…
If I make an international call to my daughter in the US over Skype, instead of using the telephone, there is a potential revenue loss on that international call to a telecom operator. This has been accounted for by telecom operators since Skype-like voice-over-internet-protocol applications have been around for a while. The problem would arise when sitting in the same mobile circle, say, Delhi, I call my daughter (who is also in Delhi) on her mobile phone using an OTT app. This would not only impact revenue accrued from local calls, it may also skew the case for STD calls. As long as broadband penetration is good and smartphone ecosystem is well developed, there is a big threat. No wonder, global telecom players are very worried about the expansion of OTT players.
But the case may not be similar in India…
That is correct. The Indian telecom industry is cushioned, in a way, due to an underdeveloped smartphone ecosystem and minimum broadband coverage. 3G coverage is still patchy while there is no ecosystem for 4G handsets in India yet.
See, we now have digital forms of the traditional newspapers. All media houses have websites and apps that deliver news. Globally, many print channels have moved to digital versions, but in India even in