Hopefully by now, most of us have gotten accustomed to remote meetings and the technical glitches and perils that accompany them, including accidental filters (see Lawyer Cat) or appearing in the buff (see Canadian Parliamentarian Will Amos). It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on how and where we work. Perhaps more importantly it has driven institutions to adopt work from home policies where they may not have otherwise done so. Notably, services such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom (known as ‘Over-The-Top’ or ‘OTT’ services) have facilitated the somewhat smooth transition to remote working. Have you ever wondered how these services operate and how they are regulated? This article will explore the nature of these services and their regulation in T&T.
Over The Top (OTT) Services
OTT services are contents or applications which ride on top of a network to which customers are connected. They are provided over the open internet and tend to use existing networks without any involvement by network owners in the transaction. They can take the form of messaging, media and voice services.
The Role of OTT Services in Today’s World
OTT services have become hugely popular over the years and even more so during the pandemic. Our relationship with these services is fairly symbiotic in that they benefit from our increased use as much as we benefit from using them.
Some of the advantages of OTT services are:
(1) Cost friendly – OTT services provide a cheaper way to connect and allows savings on local and international calls.
(2) Choice – OTT services allows customers a choice in what applications and services they use and rely on.
(3) Convenience – OTT services can generally be accessed from anywhere.
(4) Features – OTT services generally include a range of features which are similar to traditional telecommunications networks (such as, call forwarding, call waiting and voicemail).
(5) Easy to use – OTT services require only a few things to successfully work, such as a stable internet connection.
Take applications such as ‘WhatsApp’ for instance. The ability to make free calls over the internet as opposed to paying for calls using telecommunications providers has made it easier for consumers to make local and long distance calls (and allows savings on roaming charges). It also allows for a range of additional features such as the transmission of ‘memes’, media and voice recordings, which have become increasingly popular.
That being said, while we, as customers, reap the benefits of OTT services, telecommunication network providers are faced with competitive pressure to alter their traditional business models to ensure optimal network performance (especially because OTT services demand high internet speeds for efficient operation). Furthermore, the increased use of OTT services has created regulatory challenges for governments worldwide, including the Government of T&T.
Are OTT Services Regulated in T&T?
Generally speaking, the legislative framework for the regulation of telecommunications services in T&T can be found in the Telecommunications Act (the ‘Act’). However, the Act was not necessarily drafted with OTT services in mind and does not explicitly govern OTT services. This has created some doubt as to whether OTT services are regulated in T&T at all. Moreover, the position may differ depending on whether a particular OTT service is interconnected with the ‘Public Switched Telephone Network’ or ‘PSTN’.
Should OTT Services Be Regulated in T&T?
Some of the arguments which can and have been advanced to encourage the explicit regulation of OTT services in T&T include that:
(1) OTT services reap the benefits and rewards of customer usage without having to comply with the stringent licensing and regulation requirements which public telecommunications providers are subjected to, thereby creating an unequal playing field.
(2) OTT service providers are not subject to the same tax restrictions and responsibilities as public telecommunications providers, given that they may not be registered as operating entities in T&T.
(3) Public telecommunications providers invest significant sums of money in procuring telecommunications concessions and setting up infrastructure (e.g. network maintenance) to offer quality service to customers while OTT services use their networks without requiring concessions and without any financial or infrastructural contribution.
On the other hand, some of the arguments which can be advanced against the regulation of OTT services are that:
(1) If OTT services are regulated and require concessions to operate, this could lead to OTT services no longer being free of charge. Instead, customers may be charged a fee in order to offset the cost of any concession requirements.
(2) The regulation of OTT services could constitute a regulation of the internet, thereby violating the concept of net neutrality (which is a term used to describe networks that are open to equal access, price and quality of service to all).
The Future of OTT Services in T&T
The Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (“TATT”) has signaled some interest in introducing regulations to explicitly govern OTT services, particularly those which function equivalently or similarly to the traditional services and use numbering resources to connect to the PSTN. However, there is no clear or precise timeline within which this may be implemented. It would not be surprising if TATT looks closely at the developments in the international community, in order to guide its approach towards the regulation of OTT services.