The UAE’s federal telecoms regulator has clarified that there is no change in its policy towards Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, amid complaints by several users that phone and video service Skype had been disrupted in the country.
“The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) clarifies that there is no change in the UAE’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Policy,” the regulator said in an emailed statement to The National. “TRA reconfirms that any applications or services of this type must comply with the applicable regulatory framework in the country.”
TRA’s earlier policy clarification issued in 2015 stated that VoIP is a “regulated activity” in the UAE to be provided by licensed operators and urged companies providing such services to work with regulated service providers in the country.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been wary of allowing access to VoIP services over security concerns. However, the kingdom lifted its ban on calls made through Skype and Whatsapp in September but said it would continue to monitor VoIP activity.
While the UAE had disallowed call features on messaging platform Whatsapp, social networking site Facebook, as well as gaming app Discord, Skype was the only VoIP service to continue operating in the country. Fears of a ban on Skype, which has 70 million users worldwide emerged in June, when users complained about not being able to make calls, however the service had since resumed.
Several skype users in the UAE have complained over the last week that Microsoft-owned Skype, which allows users to call for free on the internet, bypassing traditional service providers, had considerably slowed over the last week.
The current slowdown in service coincides with the rollout of regulated VoIP apps by the UAE’s twin telecoms operators du and Etisalat, which have both responded to complaints on social media saying that Skype had been “blocked” and referred users to buy their licensed apps.
An Etisalat spokesman said in a statement that “unauthorized applications or services that are providing VoIP calling services are not supported in the UAE” and referred users to their Internet calling plans that are available for a fee.
Du had said in an earlier statement to The National that there “has been no changes in the VoIP policy followed in the UAE” and also encouraged users to adopt its new internet calling services.
The telecoms service provider, however did not comment on whether it had any role in the recent slowdown of service.
Meanwhile, a campaign by UAE-based users to urge the TRA to reconsider its policy has attracted over 900 signatures on change.org.
“I already pay for my phone bills, landline bills, internet bills and others. While the point of Skype, Discord, TeamSpeak and others is to easily communicate with others for free, I’m sure there are other people that find these ‘unlocked apps’ ridiculous and unnecessary,” said Mostafa A., who started the campaign titled UAE: Stop Blocking VoIP Services on change.org.
Another user Ruchir Purohit told The National that the current ban had been “embarrassing” for international business and would acutely hurt startups.
“We had a Skype meeting with a prospective client and were supposed to close the deal [but] couldn’t. I feel for the start ups,” he said.
“On one hand [the UAE] aspires to become [a] hub of technology and innovation and blocks basic communication channels on the other hand.”
One petitioner on change.org noted that the ban was “a violation of the free market”, while another user Christine wrote: “The alternative offered doesn’t work. And UAE is better than this.” Other users complained about not being able to reach relatives and families during the festive season, saying the new VoIP apps were not affordable for them.
“I am an expat in [the] UAE and my parents are in Sri Lanka…Skype is the only way that we connect with them, since UAE normal phone calls charges are unbearable to us,” read a petition by a user named Kanchana.
While Darren, a gaming enthusiast wrote, “I wanna use Discord to play peacefully”.
Skype has responded to complaints on social media by saying the matter was out of its hands and urged users to contact their service providers directly.
“The best course of action would be for you to speak to your ISP and ask why they are blocking Skype and request that they unblock our site and services,” it said in a statement on Saturday.