Internet service providers should give mobile users access to OTT services

Out-Law News | 04 Mar 2014 | 9:41 am | 3 min. read

Internet service providers (ISPs) should not prevent mobile consumers from accessing any legitimate web content and apps, Singapore's communications regulator has said.

ISPs should not implement charges or other measures which cause any legitimate web content to be inaccessible or unusable, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore has said.

The Singapore regulator made the declaration after the chief executive of telco SingTel called on the IDA to permit carriers to charge so-called over-the-top (OTT) players such as Skype and WhatsApp for offering rival services over their network.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona this week, SingTel chief executive Chua Sock Koong said that the industry risks falling levels of investment unless regulators allow them to start charging  OTT rivals for using their networks.

"The main problem we have as an industry is we have been unable to monetise this increased demand ... and ARPU [average revenue per user] has fallen over time," she said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. "I think the pace of change in our industry is relentless so clearly we can't afford to stand still. If we are not careful we could stand the risk of being totally disintermediated."

She called on regulators to permit carriers to detect and charge OTT players when their services were being used, but said the way forward for telcos is to become partners with OTT players.

"Our ambition must be to become the preferred network partners of customers and OTT players," she said. "We must create sustainable revenue models."

Singtel later issued a statement on its Facebook page, which said: "SingTel would like to assure our customers that we do not plan to charge them separately for the use of services like WhatsApp."

An IDA regulator in Singapore afterwards told ZDNet news service that it is "closely monitoring" this area of telecoms and  monitoring international discussions between telcos and OTT service providers.  IDA said that it was specifically monitoring debates around "net neutrality". Net neutrality is the principle that an ISP will deliver all content requested by a customer equally, not allowing content producers to have preferential access to subscribers.

"These discussions are complex as they require policies and regulatory measures that balance the need to promote innovation and competition in the Internet space, ensure non-discriminatory access to the Internet, and ensure protection of consumer interest," the spokesman said.

He noted that IDA currently assumes a general policy position that consumers should be able to access all legitimate content and applications on the internet, and that ISPs are not allowed to block or put restrictions on such access, and should not charge consumers or put in place other measures that would cause any legitimate Web content to be inaccessible or unusable.  

"ISPs are also not allowed to adopt internet traffic management practices that will compromise IDA's Quality of Service standards for internet access or any anti-competitive discriminatory practice that would harm consumers' interest," the spokesman said.

He added that the IDA is studying the plans of SingTel and telco StarHub to ensure IDA's policies are updated and continue to protect consumers' interests, while allowing market innovation.

Bryan Tan, of Pinsent Masons MPillay, the Singapore joint law venture partner of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: “The telcos are clearly feeling the pinch of declining revenues as a result of fast-growing OTT applications which are free alternatives to some of their revenue generators. Although the argument has been pitched around net neutrality, one wonders whether the policy to exempt internet-only applications for telco services from licensing should be revisited. Further, the collapse of the traditional telcos would not be a good thing. “

The telecoms market is also under close scrutiny in Europe. In September last year the European Commission outlined draft  new "net neutrality" rules  which propose allowing ISPs and producers of content to form agreements with one another over the quality of service to be delivered to consumers. Those rules would, generally, require ISPs to deliver "the continued availability of non-discriminatory internet access services at levels of quality that reflect advances in technology and that are not impaired by specialised services". 

The Commission's proposals make clear that ISPs would be banned from providing 'specialised services' if they impaired "in a recurring or continuous manner the general quality of internet access services".

However some members of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee have suggested changes to the plans to further restrict the circumstances in which specialised services can be provided, and last month LIBE  published a list of amendments (67-page / 435KB PDF) MEPs that make up the group would like to see made to the new legislative framework that the European Commission has drafted to reform the European telecoms market.