As in the rest of the world, many UAE residents engage in mobile communication and use social networking apps; expats, especially, are avid users of free-to-use video chat and voice calling features of companies like Snapchat. This month, however, the social media app was blocked by the two UAE telecoms giants, Du and Etisalat; its over-the-top (OTT) VoIP services are being banned because they violate VoIP regulations.
A Snapchat spokesman said: “Video and voice calling are currently not available in the UAE due to local regulations.” Snapchat recently upgraded its app to include additional features that triggered the response of the two UAE teleco companies. Some features are unavailable because of concerns over cybercrime and state security, explained Hamad Al Mansouri, director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, and said they would continue to be blocked indefinitely in aim to ensure security, safety and privacy of the consumer.
Etisalat and Du are licensed to provide telecommunications services in the UAE, and this includes VoIP; their reluctance to freely allow VoIP and other OTT services to operate, however, has led to anger from users, which spread across social media. The restrictions placed on Snapchat drew heated comments, told The National with many voicing their concern over the unwillingness to unblock WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber calls on both 3G/4G and Wi-Fi networks.
This is not the first time that a VoIP service has been affected; in fact, last year, a similar block involved Skype, perhaps the most popular VoIP service in the world that was only allowed to offer text messaging in the UAE.
The debate on the block of the OTT VoIP Services has reached the UAE’s Federal National Council (FNC) where one of the members, 32-year-old Saeed Al Remeithi described the ban as an “international embarrassment” during a meeting earlier this month. “[He] spoke out against current restrictions on so-called voice over internet protocol (VOIP) services and urged the UAE to amend its rules to make them publicly available.”
The commercial motive for disallowing the use of OTT services has consumers complaining about the origins of the VoIP ban. Users believe Etisalat and du should be working on finding ways to monetize use of these apps in ways different than simply banning third-party apps.
UAE’s ‘net neutrality’ is a heated discussion issue, as many believe that internet access providers should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source and treat equally all sites/services; no websites or pages should be blocked, as long as they aren’t illegal.
UAE telcos could review their current data plan and even decide on offering their own communications app to compete with Snapchat, Skype and all other free providers.
Whatever their decision, regulating domestic VoIP will continue to be an important issue for consumers who will continue to demand access to OTT content through Internet-connected devices. As their customers insist on having access to any worldwide-available app, Etisalat and du will have to come up with ways to allow OTT providers to make use of their infrastructures while still profiting and remaining within regulations.