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India May Permit VOIP Despite DoT Resistance

Although India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is trying to stall all attempts to introduce Internet Protocol (IP) telephony in India, some higher officials feel that the government should lift its ban on the technology.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a member of the Planning Commission, said voice-over IP (VOIP) would help in rationalizing tariffs and would boost the growth of the information technology (IT) industry. He said the government is reviewing its position on voice telephony and is expected to allow it soon.

Recently, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister and co-chairman of the National IT Task Force has come out with a strong statement favoring IP telephony and emphasized the need to speed up the process of enacting the cyber laws in India.

N. Vittal, Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVO), indicated that, in order for India to become a IT super-power, the government should allow IP telephony.

"To achieve this, we need technology in real time," he said. "It should also allow the use of VSATs for sending voice from the present use of data only."

However, the Group of Telecommunications (GoT), which formulates new telecom policy, is divided over the issue of allowing private parties to provide telephony based on IP in India. The three DoT officials in the group are opposed to permitting private parties to provide IP telephony, fearing substantial loss in DoT's revenue.

DoTs logic is simple: it has invested a considerable amount of resources into building voice networks and wants a return on its investments by charging special rates for international calls. If it allows Internet telephony, it would be denied this source of revenue.

However, observers point out that it is rather odd that in India a user is penalized with per-minute charges that rise with the length of the call. Bandwidth is considered a scarce resource in the country, and so it is rationed.

Recently, all those interested in becoming private ISPs had to sign an agreement with DoT promising that they would not allow their customers to use the Net for telephony.

DoT states that ISPs are not allowed to provide Internet telephony services, but does not explicitly state that it is illegal.

Sources say that, if one examines India current telecom laws under the Indian Telegraphs Act (ITA), a two page document formulated in 1885, there is obviously no indication that VOIP is illegal and none of the governments in power since 1885 have chosen to introduce a new telecom policy.

However, VSNL has blocked access to some of the popular Web sites promoting Internet telephony. Last year, the sites known to be blocked because of IP telephony were Vocaltec, WebPhone, Net2Phone, global exchange carrier and Netspeak.

"Even if VSNL files a case against those providing such services, there is no way that it can prove that Internet telephony was being provided," one ex-DoT official pointed out.

This is because VSNL's Gateway Access for Internet Services (GAIS), the node that routes Internet traffic, cannot differentiate between voice and data. The voice is converted in data form while going through the GAIS.

However, VSNL is escaping from pre-historic mind-set. The blockade is over now. The chairman of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), Amitabh Kumar, has indicated that India would have to consider lifting the current ban on the Internet telephony.

It seems DoT is fighting a losing battle as public opinion strongly favors the cheaper IP telephony. Many observers feel that the country should not suffer in order to protect the interests of DoT. Conventional wisdom indicates that the new government coming into power in October 1999 is likely to lift ban VOIP.



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