UAE Lifts Ban On Skype, Whilst China Locks Down
The body that regulates all telecoms practices in the UAE, the Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) has announced that it will no longer enforce a ban on the use of the Skype ‘voice over internet protocol’ (VoIP) service. The organization has instead handed control and regulation of VoIP service to Etisalat and du, the two state-owned telecoms providers that hold a duopoly over the UAE market.
The TRA has said that it still considers it an offence to use VoIP over the networks provided by Etisalat and du, but will leave the decision to enforce the ruling up to the providers. A press release from the regulator said “The licensees [Etisalat and du] will have the right to block traffic, but…the TRA does not mandate the licensees to exercise this right”, adding that the providers were “…entitled to allow a subscriber to use their internet services for Skype if they wish, or alternatively to provide their own Internet Telephony services.”
This now leaves the exact legal status of Skype in the Emirates a legal grey area, as the Authority has essentially maintained its position that Skype is not allowed, but announced that it will no longer do anything about its use and that the only two internet providers in the Emirates are free to open access to Skype users.
Even more confusion has arisen from the conflicting messages about the possibility of an official Skype service in the UAE. Director General of the TRA Mohammed al Gahim announced that the Authority was working with Skype and other VoIP providers to establish a official service, a claim that Rouzbeh Pasha, Skype’s Head of Market Development, has denied.
Fintan Healy, an Executive Director of the Emirati TRA, told reporters that the change in policy is also as a response to widespread consumer complaints of the price of long distance. Speaking to reporters Healy said ‘[international calling] is the area that has to be worked on. Consumers are telling us these services are too expensive.” A survey of UAE telephone users revealed that 49 percent were unhappy with their mobile tariffs, and 42 percent were dissatisfied with land-line rates. Mohammed Gheyath, another Executive Director with TRA said of the new measures that the Authority “belives that this regulatory policy will provide opportunities for both Licensees and users to benefit from VoIP services in keeping with the markets demands.”
China has also recently revised its official policy on Skype, going in the opposite direction to the UAE by apparently cementing the legislation that prohibits the use of VoIP to bypass national telecoms providers. A statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Information and Industry Technology last week said that it would be leading a ‘crackdown’ on illegal VoIP technologies and had started collecting evidence against them. The statement did not mention and particular providers by name, but the South China Morning Post quoted an unidentified official at the ministry as saying that VoIP could only be provided by one of China’s three big state-controlled operators.
Both China and the UAE have a history of restricting access to internet messaging, telephony and social websites citing security concerns due to the difficulty in intercepting communications over digital networks. However, there also seems to be a significant financial element. China policy to keep out YouTube and Face Book has as much as to do with the protection of its homegrown versions, one of which recently floated on the NYSE for $5 billion, as is does with maintaining security.
Skype has announced that it will also be looking to go public, and the recent actions by China and the UAE could be considered as reactions to the this – China shoring up its economic defenses whilst the Emirates liberalize in the hope of profiting from its public offering.