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At a time when telecom operators CEO’s in India are lobbying with the Telecom Regulator TRAI to regulate OTT (Internet based services), Facebook has signed up to become an associate member of the Telecom industry association COAI.

After the NDA government came into power, COAI Director General Rajan Mathews was quoted in The Hindu as saying that telecom operators feel they need “a revenue sharing arrangement between the over-the-top service providers and telecom service providers. COAI Members believe there is a crucial need to initiate dialogue and work with the Government of India on this issue”. The COAI has also prepared a white paper on OTT services (read this; we couldn’t find the white paper online, and have asked COAI for a copy). Yesterday, the TRAI held a seminar to understand whether an arrangement can be arrived at between Internet services and telecom operators.

We spoke with Ankhi Das, ‎Director & Head of Public Policy, Facebook India, about why the company joined the COAI, and their views on COAI’s push for regulation of Internet services:

MediaNama: We’re trying to understand why Facebook has joined COAI, and what are your views as a member of the COAI on their lobbying efforts, asking the regulator to set up a revenue sharing arrangement between OTT and operators.

Ankhi Das: Our primary goal is promoting access and we have to work with lots and lots of people in the industry because we can’t do it on our own. We have joined COAI as an associate member, not a core member of the COAI. If you look at the associate membership category of COAI, it includes a range of companies from big-tech: there’s IBM, all non operator based companies who have an interest in mobile technology. We have joined that category of associate members. You and I both know that in all industry associations you have different varieties of firms that become members and at times members agree, and at times they don’t agree. Even in IAMAI, there are firms that agree and those who don’t. You work towards resolving those differences, and you reserve the right to disagree.

Our entire approach and philosophy is: how do we work with different parts of the industry to improve access. There has to be an alignment of incentives for everybody, because different people are making different types of investments, in terms of ensuring that access happens. It’s a fact of life that though there is 85% of cellular coverage, only 30% people have access to the Internet. There’s a huge gap, and the infrastructure is not keeping pace. How do you de-bottleneck some of these areas. We are more interested in working with operators on advocating on partnerships on things that are common like spectrum sharing, more public investment, and those kind of areas. To bring down the entire discussion into OTT and Operators and revenue sharing is very myopic and small. The main question that needs to be asked is: what are the alignment of incentives which need to happen.

So what are companies like Facebook doing – I think Google is doing the same. We are investing a huge amount of our engineering resources on the data compression side so there is efficiency and data is delivered faster, cheaper and better, and we are all serving the same goal in terms of promoting access. In my conversations with Rajan Mathews and Vikram (COAI), we’ve always talked about broad basing the alignment of incentives.

The entire framing needs to change. It’s very reductive to say OTT. We are applications. We thrive on the Internet, whether you, me or NDTV.com. I hate to call it OTT. Bharti Airtel can create its own WAP site through which they can push data. Everyone is playing in the app economy. We need to change the conversation to talk about applications, for newspapers, health and others. Our focus is to engage in these bodies and broaden their horizon.

MediaNama: What is your take on the telecom industry CEO’s going to TRAI, and COAI including a revenue sharing arrangement between telecom operators and OTT as a part of their agenda for the government? Should the government get involved in this? It happened in Broadcast where the TRAI formalized carriage feeds between distributors and broadcasters. Do you want government intervention?

Ankhi Das: That is not something that we support. We are signatories to various industry papers, and we’ve had a public position on this consistently. I think the Internet ought to be free. That position will never change. That position is never going to change. It is free, it ought to be free. I doubt how much receptivity is there to these ideas. These are just bad ideas.

MediaNama: The TRAI organized a seminar full day seminar yesterday, which is probably a pre-cursor to a consultation.

Ankhi Das: I think these are difficult issues in front of the entire ecosystem. You need to discuss this. It’s better to have a discussion than none at all. I do not grudge or misunderstand the need or the anxiety for these discussions. There is just no transparency, and how do we engage? I don’t have a problem with consultations or discussions. It helps all the viewpoints come out, and it better than doing something sneaky, behind the scenes. How do we engage without such forums? I don’t have a problem with consultation and discussions. It’s only through participation in these consultations and associations, where we can have these points of view on the table. We need to look at the ecosystem, and not these narrow, traditional mindset, but look at the how the applications economy is going to evolve, and these are the kinds of innovations and investments we are making to make the data services more efficient. How can we go and advocate together on other promisory instruments?

MediaNama: As an associate member of the COAI, what sort of representation powers do you have when you’re not a core member, which is a position only open to telecom licensees?

Ankhi Das: That is a question on scope, and how COAI will deal with harmonising these different points of opinion. It’s a question best left to, in terms of reconciliation of positions, you should direct to the COAI. In terms of forums, COAI has an associate members committee, and that’s the committee which we are members of. It will be fair to compare COAI with TIA, and they are similar. It is an interesting evolution for them.

MediaNama: But at the same time, when they’re going and representing a telecom operator point of view, like they have, your membership adds credence to their claim.

Ankhi Das: We don’t sign up to those representations. That would apply to all associate members who would have interests, and who have application layers. They may not be a social media layer, but they have application layers and services. I would contest that, because it’s not an automatic support position. we cannot stop engagement. We cannot stop dialog: we need to engage and educate. That is our philosophy. The sector has to grow by focusing on access, and that is going to happen through an alignment of incentives. OTT’s – and first of all I hate that word, and we’re all applications on the Internet – we are innovative applications, and by regulating applications, you are absolutely killing innovation. Who knows what is going to come out tomorrow. Imagine if the sector were to be regulated: how can we even conceive what is going to come out.

MediaNama: One last thing: have you seen this paper on OTT that is being floated by the COAI?

Ankhi Das: I have not seen it, but now that you have made me aware of it, I am going to ask for it. If there is a white paper being floated, it needs to be put out for consultation.