Local app-based call service providers worry over the diminishing opportunity of their business growth after the telecom regulator hiked tariff to increase their call rate amid pressure from mobile operators.
Internet Protocol Telephony Service Providers (IPTSP) which are providing app-based services said local app users could make calls at zero cost if they were connected to the Internet, but without Internet, calls would cost Tk0.30 per minute until April.
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) in May increased tariff, fixing the minimum price of off-Net calls via apps, such as Brilliant Connect and Alaap at Tk0.40 per minute, narrowing the gap with the call rate of mobile operators – Tk0.45 per minute.
As a result, the factors – cheaper call rate and off-Net accessibility – which used to encourage people to use the platforms no longer seem significant. Neither the number of subscribers of such apps is growing, nor is the volume of calls.
That in turn threatens return from investments by IPTSPs and left their capacity underutilised.
Posts and Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar told The Business Standard that the tariff had been increased to strike a balance between call rates of mobile operators and IP telephone operators.
"App-based call rate was much lower than the mobile operators' call rate. We have to consider the mobile industry and its survival. We cannot kill one by keeping afloat another," he said.
Meanwhile, people are also using global platforms like Viber, WhatsApp, Messenger and Skype to make voice and video calls worldwide. These apps, however, require Internet connection to make calls.
On these over the top (OTT) call services, the minister said, "They are not registered here, so we do not have any authority over them."
According to the BTRC, the government issued 38 licences to IPTSPs since 2009 to promote the usage of Internet in remote areas and to make telecommunication cheaper.
Of those who got the licences, four IPTSPs rolled out app-based call services with state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunication Company Limited's Alaap being the latest in April. The rest are providing services at call centres, like 999 national emergency service Bangladesh.
Three other local platforms that have been facilitating app-based calls are InterCloud Limited's Brilliant Connect, Amber IT IP Phone and Link3 Technologies Ltd's DIAL.
The services were increasingly getting popular until the call rate went up, said Md Hasibur Rashid, director and chief marketing officer at NovoTel Limited that owns Brilliant Connect.
Mobile operators oppose OTT calls
Since the beginning, mobile network operators have been opposing local OTT calls as they take away a slice of revenue earnings from them.
The Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB), a platform of mobile operators, in a letter to the BTRC in 2019, said that because of OTT calls, market leader
Grameenphone would lose Tk1,693 crore per year while the government would lose Tk576 crore in revenue.
The AMTOB urged the regulatory commission not to allow more OTT operators and to set the same tariff for OTT calls as for mobile operators.
Before the tariff hike, three service providers used to connect 20 lakh calls per day. The volume of calls has not risen even after the joining of the state-owned Alaap in the sector.
"The call generating tendency of users has fallen dramatically as the cost of calls is the same for both mobile operators and app-based call providers," said Md Junayed Ahmed, managing director at local technology company Level3 Career.
Calls from call centres have become costlier too, he added.
Conflict over revenue share
App-based calling services charge Tk0.40 per minute. Out of Tk0.40, local operators pay Tk0.10 per minute as interconnection charge to mobile operators and Tk0.04 per minute for off-Net calls to interconnection exchange operators.
After these, IPTSPs are left with Tk0.26, including tax.
Mobile operators are demanding an additional revenue if the app-based calls are generated using mobile data instead of broadband data.
IPTSPs oppose the demand, terming it irrational and oppressive.
"Mobile users use video services, such as bioscop, troffie and hoichoi accessible through broadband Internet. But the Internet providers are not claiming additional charges for that," said NovoTel's Hasibur Rashid.
He requested the BTRC to make a decision based on facts, so "there is a win-win situation for both the parties".