NEW DELHI: The telecom watchdog is considering regulation of over-the-top (OTT) apps that stream TV channels, such as Hotstar, Airtel TV and Sony Liv, to bring them under a licensing framework similar to the one for broadcasters.
Trai, which recently introduced new tariff rules aimed at making television viewing more affordable, now plans to focus on carriage of TV channels via apps that are currently unregulated and, in some cases, offered free.
“Carriage of TV programming has been licensed out to registered broadcasters who are then allowed to give the content to cable operators or satellite players, under a licensing framework. If a third party, like an app, is showing the same channels without paying carriage charges and licence fee, it creates disparity,” said a senior official who did not want to be identified.
“Either both should be under the ambit of the licence, or both should be exempted,” the official added. Trai may issue a consultation paper on the matter by July-August.
In India, a broadcasting licence is valid for 10 years, and the licensee must comply with the programming and advertising code under the cable TV (regulation) Act. The channels must adhere to guidelines set by the I&B ministry.
In contrast, apps are governed by the IT Act, but are not licensed.
Besides facing resistance from apps that stream TV channels, Trai’s move is also expected to be opposed by broadcasters that have their own streaming apps such as Star India, Sony, Zee and Times Network.
Video streaming service MX Player’s CEO Karan Bedi said, “OTT platforms are only an additional medium for viewers to watch TV channels. TV channels by themselves are already sufficiently regulated. Any additional licensing framework is entirely unnecessary.”
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MX Player is owned by Times Internet, part of The Times Group, which publishes The Economic Times.
Broadcasters having their own streaming apps have already told the regulator — on a separate consultation paper pertaining to regulation of OTT players in the telecom space — that apps should not be regulated, and have sought forbearance from Trai.
Star India, in its submission on the communication OTT paper, had said, “Trai does not have the authority under the Act (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997) to regulate OTTs… the internet ecosystem, of which OTTs are an integral part, is governed and regulated by the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the rules notified thereunder.”
“In addition, all internet companies are subject to the extant law of the land such as the Competition Act, Consumer Protection Act, intellectual property laws, to name a few. These legislative frameworks set the commercial and technical parameters and the legal boundaries for OTTs to conduct business in a market-based environment,” Star India added.
However, DTH companies and cable operators’ associations have asked the regulator to address the non-level playing field created by these OTT apps providing linear transmission of satellite TV channels of various broadcasters — or, in other words, showing the same show on TV and an app at the same time — which they feel is a violation of licence rules.
Trai is separately carrying out a consultation process on whether to regulate apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype, which provide communication services like voices calls and messages similar to mobile phone companies but are not regulated, unlike the telcos.
Carriers in India have long been demanding that these communication OTT players be also regulated under the principle of ‘same-service, same-rules’. However, OTTs argue that a regulatory regime for them would stifle innovation.
But while recommendations on this issue are awaited, another official said Trai wants to set the ball rolling for regulatory clarity on OTT apps in the broadcasting sector, as it feels the impact will be limited to fewer consumers and companies vis-à-vis communication OTT apps that are now being used by a far higher number of people.
“Viewing TV shows on apps is still an urban phenomenon and yet to reach the mass scale that OTT apps in communication have,” the person said, adding that the regulator does not want to be caught off-guard like in the case of OTT communication apps where the consultation has been hanging fire for many years. The person added that Trai’s move is also “to pre-empt any legal cases it might get caught in due to the non-level playing field”.