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Blocking Skype, A short-sighted policy

Muscat - 

The Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) made it clear in a recent press release that it has no intention of allowing the providers of unlicensed voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)services to operate in the sultanate. In other words, the TRA is saying that you should not expect Skype to be unblocked anytime soon.

The TRA does not technically ban VoIP services, instead it requires that all providers of VoIP services apply for a licence before they are allowed to provide such a service in the country. For example, Nawras is properly licensed to provide VoIP services in Oman, and it does offer VoIP through a dial-in number to have reduced rates to make calls to the Indian subcontinent. These rates are reduced, but they are not cheap, and they are obviously not available for calls to other countries around the world.

It is great that the TRA thinks that consumers would be more protected against fraud and other wrongdoings that may be committed by the provider, and there is no doubt that the economy would benefit from taxation of the profits of those who register to provide VoIP services in Oman. But the fact is that Oman is such a small market and it is very unlikely for the big players to find it worthwhile their time and effort to come all the way here just to register to satisfy the legal requirements of TRA.

The loss of the opportunity to make profit out of the Omani market is negligible for international businesses; the real losers here are us the Omani consumers. We have to pay exorbitant fees to stay in touch with our family and friends outside the country, even those in places as close as the UAE and Qatar.

Every day new technologies come out that make use of VoIP in one way or another and we never get the opportunity to make full use of these technologies like the rest of the world because of TRA's policy to block all VoIP applications. Just think of iPhone's FaceTime and the hundreds of other applications on new smart phones for voice and video chat.

While we do have a costly alternative to Skype (just use your regular phone to make an international phone call), the same cannot be said of all these new and crippled technologies which we are not allowed to use. Oman Mobile and Nawras are not capable of providing us an alternative to FaceTime even if we pay them for it.

It is widely believed that the real reason why Skype is blocked is because the TRA wishes to protect the interests of local companies and help them make money off international phone calls. This will not be hard to believe if you think of the incentive the TRA would lose if it cut off this revenue stream from Omantel, a company in which the government still holds a very significant share.

This desire to protect the business of making phone calls is very short sighted. It is true that the widespread use of VoIP can lead to a reduction in the use of regular voice services, but it will surely help promote the use of data services, which are needed to use VoIP and any other technology used to communicate over the Internet.

The TRA has to reconsider the way VoIP is regulated, Oman cannot seriously consider transforming itself into a knowledge-based economy when the basic means of communicating this knowledge are blocked and crippled for the sake of providing local businesses with an opportunity to make money off old and inefficient services.

Riyadh Abdul Aziz is a blogger interested in the relationship between the web and society who works as a legal researcher for the government of Oman. His interested are technology, intellectual property, and law. You can e-mail Riyadh at riyadh.aziz@apexstuff.com

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