Online fury over fears of SingTel charging for free chat apps

SINGAPORE - Netizens were up in arms on Thursday over fears that SingTel might charge subscribers for using popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Many vented their unhappiness on the telco's Facebook page, criticising SingTel for trying to make more money by charging for chat apps, many of which are free.

Netizen Gail Koh said on SingTel's Facebook page: "If you really intend to charge people for the data used for WhatsApp, you (are) guaranteed a loss of many customers to competitors."

But SingTel later clarified on Facebook at about 6pm last night that it was not planning to charge customers separately for services such as WhatsApp.

The furore had been sparked by reports about SingTel chief executive Chua Sock Koong's call at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, for regulators to allow carriers, such as SingTel's Australian unit Optus, to charge providers of Internet services for using the telcos' networks.

A report by research firm Ovum last November said mobile operators globally were estimated to have lost US$32.6 billion (S$41.2 billion) in revenue to social messaging services in 2013, up from US$23 billion in 2012.

Ms Chua said operators had been "unable to monetise" higher demand for "over-the-top" services and the average revenue per user for telcos had fallen over time, said Australian media reports. Over-the-top services refer to Internet services such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, that are outside a telco's control.

But Ms Chua also said telcos should not simply charge providers of services like WhatApp, but work with them.

SingTel told The Straits Times it already works with over-the-top players like WhatsApp and Facebook to offer prepaid users data plans featuring unlimited use of the services.

When contacted, M1 and StarHub said they would work with over-the-top service providers.

Mr Benjamin Tan, managing director of Internet service provider SuperInternet, said allowing companies to charge companies that run services like WhatsApp will set a precedent and make people wonder which other service will be next.

Asked if it would allow telcos here to charge firms such as WhatsApp, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said in response that Internet service providers are not allowed to block legitimate Internet content to consumers. They also cannot impose restrictions, charges or other measures that cause legitimate Internet content to be effectively inaccessible or unusable.

"We are studying SingTel's and StarHub's plans to ensure that IDA's policies are updated and continue to protect consumers' interests, while allowing market innovation," IDA added.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.