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Airtel calls for regulation of OTT service providers

Airtel calls for regulation of OTT service providers.

Over-the-top service (OTT) providers need to be the subject of regulation as they utilise and profit from infrastructure put in place by mobile network operators, according to Airtel Africa chief executive officer (CEO) Christian de Faria.

Speaking at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Global Symposium for Regulators in Libreville, Gabon, de Faria called on regulators to build a structure to create an equal playing field for all providers.

The relationship between operators and OTT providers - and its future sustainability - has been the subject of debate in recent months, with Airtel working with the likes of Facebook to make the Internet.org app available in Kenya, the closed-wall nature of which has been criticised by smaller service providers.

WeChat Africa CEO Brett Loubser has called for the establishment of relationships between operators and OTT service providers that are sustainable in the long-term and do not just benefit the operator in terms of customer acquisition, but for de Faria this long-term sustainability involves preventing OTT players from using operator platforms to offer services that cannibalise mobile network revenues.

"We are happy with the data revolution that is taking place, but new players are riding on our infrastructure and investment, and yet they are not subject to the same taxes and regulation regimes as operators. We expect regulators to help," he said.

"Just like all the players in this industry, we seek to increase our footprint by offering our customers a wider range of products and services. However, we need a levelled playing field for all operators, as this will not only allow for equitable competition between over-the-top operators and telecommunications companies, but will also ensure the investments required to deploy these technologies are viable."

Regulators should consider regulations for OTT players covering licensing, spectrum, security and revenues, de Faria said, adding that should OTT services such as VoIP continue to grow, mobile network operators may be forced to charge subscribers a premium fee for access.

"As network operators, we need OTT businesses as they help us reach a wider market, while conversely the OTT companies are dependent on our networks to thrive," he said.

"We are adapting our business models by offering products that incorporate OTT players because we don't want to block them, but regulators need to ensure a level playing field for all. Ultimately, mobile network operators are seeking a win-win solution in which customers can benefit socio-economically from mobile connectivity."

He did say that certain OTT providers understand the issue and the need to work together to achieve a mutually beneficial solution.

His remarks were echoed by fellow panelist and operator Bocar Ba, CEO of the Samena Telecommunications Council, though regulators in attendance said no single country or regulatory entity could solve the issue on its own.

They said a coordinated approach would be required to establish a tariff framework balancing the rights of consumers and encouraging innovation while still rewarding the investment in infrastructure made by telecoms players.

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