The Internet is a global network of close to 100 million people. It provides a vast range of telecommunication services, including electronic mail, the World Wide Web, and more recently, telephony. With appropriate software that can be downloaded free, users who are logged onto the Internet can talk to each other anywhere in the world at no additional cost. Recently, some companies have started services that allow such users to even talk to people who do not have an Internet connection, but only a regular phone, at a cost far below regular long-distance charges. How is this possible?
Telecommunications multinationals (telcos), which so far have often monopolized services in their own countries, have been charging their customers very high rates for international telephony. Internet telephony is a lot cheaper, because it does not incur many costs that the telcos do. These include marketing, metering, billing and collecting from their customers, which add a huge overhead. Also, they use expensive switches, which have been programmed independently at great cost by each supplier. As against this, the Internet runs on software that is largely free - many universities, research institutions, companies and individuals have incurred the costs of developing it on their own. Until recently, most telcos have enjoyed the benefits of monopoly pricing. In India, they still do.
The Situation with Internet telephony in India
In a note dated 5 Jan 1998, VSNL asked its Internet customers "not to use the Internet connection for Telephony or Fax applications," and that those who violated this "would be permanently debarred from using Internet services" (see Annexure 1). Not content with this, VSNL has also been preventing access through the Internet to some companies that write Internet telephony software. As a consequence, VSNL's customers are being prevented from sending electronic mail to these companies, and from accessing their Web sites for information. The title pages of 3 such blocked Web sites are reproduced in Annexure 2, to show that the contents in no way violate Indian law.
A complaint to the VSNL Help Desk, elicited the following one-line response: "sir, this site is not accessible from vsnl." When asked why, and under which power and authority access to the Vocaltec site had been blocked, VSNL's manager in charge of Internet services, Neeraj Sonker, also provided a one-line reply, "As part of contract terms and conditions, we don't encourage voice over ip." IP stands for Internet Protocol. In other words, Mr. Sonker seems to suggest that VSNL have a problem with voice in any form carried over the Internet. No response has been received from VSNL to the following request, which seeks to determine the scope of VSNL's ban:
"With respect to the ban on Internet telephony cited below, could you please clarify exactly what is banned:
1) Is it permissible to access a web page that automatically plays an audio file on my computer?
2) Is it permissible to attach a voice message to an e-mail message and send it via VSNL?
3) Is it permissible to access voice mail from a US voice mail box through the Internet?
4) Since you mention fax as well in your ban, is it permissible to attach the scanned image of a page, and send that as an attachment to an e-mail message?
5) The same scanned image of a page may also have been put up on a web page. Is it illegal to access such a page?"