The debate swirling around potential over-the-top (OTT) service fees has reached fever pitch in China, with the highly popular WeChat smartphone application at the center of the storm.
The WeChat app, which enables a range of voice, video and messaging capabilities and which is currently free, has more than 300 million users in China. That level of popularity has been good news for the app's developer, Shenzhen-based Internet technology firm Tencent, but not so great for the network operators given the task of delivering the resulting data traffic: Senior executives from China Mobile Ltd., the country's biggest operator, have complained publicly on a number of occasions about the burden of carrying WeChat traffic.
So when China's top telecom official Miao Wei, the Minister of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), signalled his support for charging a fee for WeChat usage, the OTT fee debate became big news.
Following weeks of speculation about the possible imposition of a fee for WeChat, Miao told a local newspaper that a fee was "likely," though he also distanced himself from any involvement in proposing any details, leaving that burden with China's main mobile operators.
Miao, though, said the operators' demands were "very reasonable," and that the firms needed to be able to continue to invest and operate their networks.
Ministry officials and executives from the mobile operators and Tencent reportedly discussed the issue of fees at meetings in February and March.
But Tencent's President, Lau Chi Ping, has reportedly stated that it is "unlikely" to charge a fee for its app as users are already paying for Internet access as part of their mobile subscriptions. That's a position previously stated by CEO Pony Ma.
That puts Tencent quite firmly in the anti-OTT charges camp (as you'd expect) but doesn't rule out the prospect that WeChat might carry some sort of charge in the near future.
Keeping customers happy
If any kind of WeChat-related fee is imposed, it will be the first OTT app-related tariff in a major telecom market. Other markets, in Europe in particular, have voiced support for slapping charges on OTT apps, but none has committed to what would be an unpopular move with customers.
And customer power is important, even in a one-party authoritarian state such as China. Politicians in Beijing are particularly sensitive to public opinion, which these days manifests itself primarily via social media, including WeChat, and the app's users are unlikely to accept the loss of their free texts and photo swapping without a vigorous outcry.
Fang Xingdong, Web services entrepreneur and the founder of blogchina.com, sent a clear message in a microblog message (forwarded nearly 1,700 times) by declaring that any WeChat fee would "become the most serious battle so far over China's internet."
And it's a battle that not everyone seems willing to fight. While China Mobile, which has more than 720 million customers, is keen on OTT compensation, it may struggle to get the full support of the country's smaller wireless carriers, China Telecom Corp. Ltd. and China Unicom Ltd.
For that duo, both of which are selling versions of the iPhone, WeChat is an effective tool that helps them snatch customers away from the market leader, which is handicapped by the world’s only TD-SCDMA 3G network and a limited handset range that doesn't include the iPhone.
China Telecom chief Wang Xiaochu told the company's annual results press conference on March 20 that data had become a core service for the company, and he saw "no current contradiction" with WeChat.
China Mobile's OTT problem
It's fair to say that China's OTT-related capacity crunch is almost wholly China Mobile's problem. While WeChat traffic accounts for just 10 percent of its data traffic, the app occupies 60 percent of its signalling capacity because of its "always-on" function.
That signalling crunch is particularly severe because the vast majority of China Mobile's customers are still on its 2G network, with just 105 million customers (about 14.5 percent of the total) on its more data-friendly 3G network.
China Unicom and China Telecom, which have WCDMA and CDMA EV-DO networks respectively, have a much higher proportion of 3G users. (Yet China Mobile generates a higher proportion of revenues, 28.5 percent, from data traffic, compared with 19.9 percent and 14.0 percent from Unicom and Telecom respectively.)
No wonder, then, that China Mobile CEO Li Yue recently issued an arguably over-the-top statement about the impact of OTT services. He claimed that operators all around the world had been hit by large-scale outages and warned that without cooperation from OTT providers, "we can't provide services for long."
In the meantime, all three major operators are either revamping existing messaging services or introducing new ones in order to compete with WeChat.
Of course, there is a solution to the current situation that would avoid any direct fees for customers and, at the same time, forge cooperation between Tencent and the operators.
Rather than pass on fees to users, the company may seek to strike a deal directly with the operators. In that scenario, the carriers would still have a free chat app to contend with, but they would have satisfied their "very reasonable" requests for compensation and avoided a major confrontation with their customers. For more on that scenario, see this Electric Speech blog.
Having won the ministry's backing, it is now up to the operators to figure out a plan.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading