March 25, 2012
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) issued new guidelines for providing public voice services through voice over IP (VoIP) last week. The release of these new guidelines was misunderstood by a number of people in Oman to mean that VoIP services, such as Skype, will finally be unblocked and allowed in Oman. This is unfortunately incorrect and Skype until this moment remains inaccessible.
The Telecommunications Law in Oman does not ban the use of Skype or any other VoIP service, but instead it requires any person who wishes to provide such a service to the public to apply for a licence from the TRA in order to be allowed to do so.
Nawras is licensed to provide VoIP services in Oman and does in fact offer a call-in VoIP service for making less expensive calls to India, Pakistan, and some other countries. The TRA has decided to block Skype and all other VoIP services, because it believes that Skype should come here and apply for a licence before it can offer its services in Oman.
The new guidelines that came out in last week’s issue of the Official Gazette were simply additional rules that licensed providers of VoIP, such as Nawras, should abide by when providing their service to the public. These guidelines do not change the licence requirements for providing VoIP or the criteria for applying for a licence at all.
The TRA argues that it is in the public interest to continue to block Skype, as long as Skype is not registered in Oman, because forcing Skype to register will empower consumers if they ever had to take legal action against Skype, will provide Omanis with employment opportunities, will ensure that Skype does not avoid paying tax on its profit, and will guarantee that Skype will comply with the state security requirements.
It is difficult to take these justifications seriously, because the same arguments could be applied to any business on the Internet such as Amazon or eBay. The fact that a foreign web business is not registered in Oman does not mean that the government has the right to block its access to the public.
Should the New York Times website be blocked because it is not registered with the Ministry of Information, Amazon be blocked because it is not registered with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, or Paypal be blocked because it is not registered with the ITA? That would be ridiculous of course.
As the government remains a majority shareholder of Omantel, it is widely believed that the only reason Skype and other VoIP services are blocked is that because the TRA wishes to protect the financial interest of local telecommunication companies such as Omantel and Nawras, who would lose a lot of the profits they make by charging people extortionate fees for making international phone calls.
It is extremely sad that the TRA fails to appreciate the benefits to be gained by society by removing its ban on foreign operated VoIP services. VoIP has become an integral part of modern day technology and it is vital for supporting the survival of small and medium enterprises, the development of new educational methods, and communicating with the rest of the world.
Riyadh Abdul Aziz is a blogger interested in the relationship between the web and society