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TRAI mulls regulating apps streaming TV channels

The TRAI 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. The Authority now plans to focus on carriage of TV channels via apps that are currently unregulated and, in some cases, offered free.

In India, a broadcasting license 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.

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.”

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 license 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 voice 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.

While recommendations on this issue are awaited, 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.

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