The implications of lifting the ban on VOIP services in the Gulf States
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The Implications of Lifting the Ban on VOIP Services in the Gulf States
15 July 2018
Dr. Fatima Al-Subaie
Certain Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman, especially after the Arab revolutions in 2012, started blocking the use of Internet-based audio and video call services (Voice Over Internet Protocol “VOIP”) offered by free applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Snap Chat, Skype and others. The reason: organizational and security concerns by communication and internet regulatory authorities over how to safely provide such Internet-based communication services.
App companies seek to keep communications and data encrypted using End-to-End Encryption, covering the whole link from the originating to the receiving party. This allows the exchange of conversations, communications and data between a sender and a receiver, after encoding them into scrambled data. The scrambled data can only be understood and accessed by the transmitting and receiving devices as they automatically exchange the app’s decryption keys needed to return the data to its original, understandable form. Communication companies, service providers or any third party cannot access these encrypted messages/ calls.
Apps’ companies encrypt Internet communications in order to protect users privacy and data. This, however, prevents telecommunications and IT regulatory authorities from exercising their supervisory and regulatory role in implementing the internet laws and rules of the country. In order to get out of this predicament, some tech companies agreed to give security and regulatory authorities access to VOIP calls, in some way or another, to enable them enforce their regulatory requirements. Such measures include placing the encryption servers within the host country, as was the case with Blackberry in the UAE.
Saudi Arabia has lifted the ban on calls through WhatsApp and other apps in September 2017, saying that these tech companies have complied with the Saudi regulatory requirements. However, details of how the regulatory requirements were complied with or how the users’ data and VOIP audio and video contents will be monitored in Saudi Arabia were not disclosed.
The decision to lift the ban on VOIP communications, which was hugely welcomed by the public in Saudi Arabia, was in line with the major social reforms that are taking place in Saudi Arabia under the leadership of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman and aimed at increasing the productivity, culture and entertainment and communication within the society by the intelligent use of technical applications. Lifting the ban also helps to strengthen the infrastructure needed for achieving economic development, reducing dependence on oil and diversification of sources of income, because it will lead to increased direct investments in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector and stimulate digital transformation and growth of internet-based businesses, economic sectors and entertainment industry.
World Bank data show the significant benefits that users in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries that still limit the access to free internet calls will reap form the reactivation of VOIP calls. World Bank statistics indicate that Internet usage reached 74% of the total population in Saudi Arabia in 2016, 91% in the UAE and 98% in Bahrain. They also show that the number of mobile subscriptions in the same year reached 158 per 100 people in Saudi Arabia, 204 in the UAE and 217 in Bahrain. Therefore, the decision to lift the ban on VOIP calls in Saudi Arabia will reduce the cost of international calls and communications to a large number of residents, both citizens or expatriates, and promote social communications among them.
The lifting of the ban will also encourage the telecommunications sector in the Kingdom to move towards digital transformation of the telecommunications service and the introduction of service packages for voice calls over the Internet Protocol (VOIP). In this way, communication companies will benefit from the increased number of Internet subscriptions, mobile phone owners and the expanded use of high bands for data services. This, in turn, will help make good the lost revenue from the fall in billable phone calls, especially the international calls by the 12 million expatriates or nearly one-third of the total population of Saudi Arabia.
The future of VOIP services is expected to grow in the coming years, propelled by many factors including expanding smartphone market and increased popularity of apps that provide VOIP services (for example, the number of users of Messenger has reached more than 800 million users per month). Furthermore, telecommunication companies (operators) are competing with each other to provide VOIP services as an added bonus to their customers, considering the good increase in the speed and quality of VOIP communications and drop in the cost and requirements to both the operators and users.
However, the speed of future progress in the transition to VOIP call services and its adoption by operators as an alternative to the current conventional voice calls over Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will largely depend on a number of factors, including the availability of good Internet services at speed required by all users around the clock in all countries, the use of VOIP apps in mobile phones and other devices in public and private sector institutions, putting regulatory and supervisory policies in place by the authorities responsible for the issuance of licenses to apps companies and the compliance with the security and protection requirements.