Hello, hello??? Skype, the VoIP fiascos and the UAE’s telcos (oh, and also the TRA)

Skype may be finally available by accident in the UAE but I doubt that Du took action after listening to the consumer. In fact, does anyone in the UAE’s telco sector listen to what consumers want? (Credit: Blakeandkaty.com)

Who hasn’t heard of VoIP, or voice-over-IP for those of us who are allergic to abbreviations. Or, put in a different way, who has not heard of Skype? The software, which allows users to call other users for free over the internet or call phone lines for (usually) lower fees than it’d cost to use a telecommunications operator, is the most popular VoIP software on the market today. Skype is free, it can be downloaded in a matter of minutes, and it’s incredibly handy. Skype and other software products have been out for what seems like an eternity (Skype was released in 2003 and I’ve been using it since 2004) but all of this malarkey might have passed you by if you lived in the UAE. Why? Well, let’s put it this way, Skype may cost the UAE’s two telecommunication companies quite a bit of cash and so it and other VoIP products designed for public consumption have been banned in the country.

The UAE’s telcos, Du and Etisalat, and the country’s official body for the industry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, have played a merry dance with consumers to sidestep the issue. In a series of flip-flops that would make any politician proud the TRA took the lead in terms of banning Skype only to change its stance in 2010 when the body claimed that the country’s telco operators were free to license VoIP solutions.

Of course the telcos didn’t take any action, Skype’s website remained blocked and while people could download the software via third-party providers you wouldn’t be able to charge your account and make net-to-phone calls without a friend loading our account from outside of the UAE (the exception used to be the Free Zones where Skype was for a time in 2004-2006 unblocked – of course this changed in due course).

After years of talk and no action, something strange was spotted by the hawks at the National newspaper this week. Skype’s website was accessible for people who used the internet service provided by Du; they could open accounts and load money onto the service. The original article is here and is worth a read. The country’s other ISP Etisalat is still blocking Skype.

The mystery deepened the next day after the media rushed to Du for a quote. While initially tight-lipped Du did release a statement as follows:

“There has been no change in the treatment of VoIP traffic, including Skype, on our networks.”

So, Skype is available from Du. It can be used to make calls and yet there’s been no change. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I’m sure the confusion over the issue will continue for some time. Microsoft, Skype’s owner, claims to not know what is going on. And there’s no suggestion that Etisalat, the other larger ISP, will unblock the service any time soon. If anything is a lesson in bad communications then this should be it.

Let me contrast this with the rest of the region, where Skype is freely available and not blocked. And don’t even get me started on Apple’s Facetime which is also not available in the UAE and yet accessible across the rest of the GCC.

A decade after its release and we’re still no closer to understanding when VoIP software will be freely available to use in the UAE. Even the launch of Blackberry’s Z10, which uses a solution called BBM Voice to make and receive calls over data networks (ala VoIP), was apparently delayed by the UAE’s refusal to allow use of the programme in the country. And I quote:

On Sunday afternoon, BlackBerry announced that the phone would still go on sale, but it was confirmed that the BBM Voice would not be available when the device was launched.

“We are currently in talks with BlackBerry on launch of BBM Voice and Video services,” Farid Faraidooni, chief commercial officer of Du, said in an emailed statement. “We shall soon commence testing phase to assure the right consumer experience. We remain committed towards launching new and innovative services that add value to customers in the UAE marketplace.”

Etisalat could not be reached for comment.

For a country that prides itself on being a hub for the region’s tech sector I’ve always found this issue embarrassing. It smacks of greed, of protectionism, and of not wanting to adapt to today’s technology where it will impact revenues. In other markets such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the regulatory body acts on behalf of the consumer. Unfortunately, we’re some way off that concept here. So for now, I’ll be using my Skype as much as possible. I’m hoping that all of you good people in the UAE will join me online and on Skype sooner rather than later.