Chennai: Till a few years ago, V. Krishnamurthy was using expensive calling cards to telephone his US-settled daughter. The 62-year-old retired DSP stays in Madipakkam in South Chennai and lives off his pension and small savings. “The call rates were very high and we would talk to her once a week. Often, my wife wouldn’t get enough time to talk to our daughter,” he recalled. “We missed her a lot.”
So, understandably, he was mighty surprised when he was introduced to Skype and Google Talk recently. The 2003-founded Skype, which became popular in India in the late 2000s, have changed Krishnamurthy and wife K. Rajeswari’s lives. Using their son’s PC, they are able to make video calls to their daughter spending no extra dime. “We now pay only for the Internet charges and meet our daughter online every day. Then came WhatsApp calling, which made things much easier. She is now able to talk to my daughter through a Wi-Fi connected smartphone with no added cost,” said Krishnamurthy.
Krishnamurthy’s enthusiasm is echoed by 70-year-old Vijayakumar, a Villivakkam resident who retired from the education department a few years ago. “With GoogleTalk, Skype and WhatsApp, we are able to talk to our son in the US whenever we want to and it has drastically reduced our phone bills,” he said.
Krishnamurthy and Vijayakumar belong to a multitude of beneficiaries of the boom in Internet technology the world has witnessed over the past few years. And, with good reasons, they are now a worried lot, thanks to the raging debate over net neutrality in India triggered by leading telecom company Airtel’s Zero plan and similar efforts which envisage to over-charge internet-based calling features like WhatsApp and Skype. The issue is now with telecom regulator Trai.
“If they are going to charge differentially for such services, it will be a big blow for people like us. We have to shell out more money for Internet and my pension won’t be enough to support it,” said Vijayakumar.
“This will force us to cut the frequency of our communications with loved ones abroad.” According to one estimate, some 10 million Tamilians are staying or settled abroad and most of them keep strong links with their kith and kin in the state. Most of this lot now communicates via Voice-enabled Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and WhatsApp.
Obviously, most of these families are worried over the current debate over violation of net neutrality. The debate started in December last year when Airtel, the country’s largest mobile operator, wanted to charge customers extra for VoIP services. The company said if users wanted to use Internet for making voice calls, they should subscribe to an additional package.
But Airtel had to hold the plan following customer outrage and viral campaigns on social media. In March this year, Trai released a consultation paper on the so-called “Over the top” services and the regulator requested all stakeholders and the public to comment on net neutrality by April 24. It wanted to know whether over the top services such as WhatsApp and Viber have to be charged differentially or not. Trai has so far received more than 8,00,000 e-mails against the move, asking it to issue guidelines to safeguard net neutrality.
“Such a move will kill off the Internet ecosystem,” warned Anivar Aravind, free software expert and technology consultant. He added that net neutrality formed the basic principle of the Internet. A spokesperson from Tata Teleservices said that the company was looking at the issue. “Internet is a basic need for everybody and we need to find a middle path for everybody,” he said. Now, all eyes are on Trai, with the likes of Krishnamurthy and Vijayakumar anxiously watching the space....
Location: Tamil Nadu