The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is evaluating a consultation process to regulate online video streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, two people familiar with the development said.

The regulator has received multiple requests from industry stakeholders to develop a (pricing and economic) framework for the video streaming platforms and may add a separate section on such platforms in the soon-to-be-released consultation paper for over-the-top (OTT) platforms (like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber), said one of the two people mentioned above, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The stakeholders have expressed concern that certain broadcasters are airing same content through internet channels as through direct-to-home (DTH) platforms and cable operators. Trai is examining the issue. It will most likely be a part of the OTT consultation, if a decision to consult is reached,” said this person.

The primary issue, the person added, is that certain broadcasters are airing content on their video streaming platforms for free, while the same content is chargeable on DTH and cable networks, posing a threat to the latter.

Anil Malhotra, chief operating officer at Zee Group-owned cable company Siti Networks Ltd, confirmed that industry stakeholders have requested TRAI to introduce a regulatory framework for such platforms. “OTT (video streaming) must be regulated. It is just another form of IPTV. On the basis of just a few differentiations, one cannot say that OTT is outside the purview of regulation and no law of land should apply to it,” he said.

Internet protocol television, or IPTV, primarily involves broadcasting real-time television content and is also requires licence/permission or a registration with the information and broadcasting ministry before providing TV broadcasting services to users.

Online video streaming sector in India is currently dominated by global players Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, broadcaster-owned platforms Hotstar and Voot, and SonyLIV and independent video-on-demand service providers like YuppTV, Hooq and Spuul.

Star India-owned Hotstar (launched in February 2015) had the highest number of monthly active subscribers (between January and September 2017), followed by Jio TV and Jio Cinema, according to data from app analytics firm App Annie Inc. While services like Netflix are purely subscription-based, Hotstar offers Indian content free but charges a monthly fee of Rs199 for popular international series. Some like Viacom18-owned Voot are advertising-led.

Interestingly, the health ministry had also written to TRAI to issue an advisory to online movie and TV streaming firms in 2017 to comply with anti-tobacco rules and display messages and warnings in scenes showing tobacco products or their use, Mint had reported on 5 October 2017. The letter had come after the ministry observed violation of anti-tobacco rules by these companies.

However, one faction of broadcast stakeholders (including companies operating OTT platforms) has been opposing regulatory intervention. “The regulation is a threat to the OTT space and internet. Nowhere in the world has such a framework been introduced; a producer has a right to distribute his content whatever way he wants. Introducing regulatory framework in such a situation will adversely impact innovation and availability of such services” said the second person of the two people cited earlier.

“OTT does not impact distribution platforms like cable and DTH firms because consumers (if not paying for content) pay for data usage to access that content. At a time of net neutrality, OTT regulation is a big setback,” the person added.

According to a 2016 report by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA), a Hong-Kong based media organization for the Asia-Pacific region, regulators across the region have been facing the challenge on how to regulate, at a local level, international content services which may not have any physical presence in their jurisdiction. They are also looking at how to regulate the same content made available over multiple platforms, each with its own rules.

Most countries have been light on regulating video streaming, with the exception of China, where companies have to comply with local licensing requirements and certain telecom service permits, the report added. – Live Mint