To say the WhatsApp voice calling feature has captured the attention of the masses would be an understatement, and among the latest developments regarding the rollout of the feature is a report that a United Arab Emirates (UAE) telecom operator has blocked the VoIP functionality.
A report by Emirates 24/7 cites an unnamed company source to claim Etisalat – one of two licensed telecom operators in the UAE, the other being Du – started blocking WhatsApp voice calls over its network from Monday, and that the ban would take four to six days to affect all its customers in the UAE. It is being speculated that those users who’ve managed to activate the feature can still continue to use it over Wi-Fi networks.
The Emirates 24/7 report adds that subscribers of Du are still able to use the WhatsApp voice calling feature, implying the telecom operator has not yet blocked the service. This leniency is not expected to last however, with a statement by the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) clarifying the rules surrounding the offering and usage of VoIP services in the UAE.
The TRA in its statement says that “VoIP services are still a prerogative of the licensed providers who reserve the right to provide such services through their networks. Companies wishing to offer such services must co-ordinate with the licensed telecom providers in the UAE.” The regulator’s VoIP policy from 2013 states only Etisalat and Due are licensed to provide telecommunications services in the UAE, and this includes VoIP.
Of course, with such a rule in place, WhatsApp voice calling is not the only VoIP service that is affected. Skype, perhaps the most popular VoIP service in the world, is only allowed to offer text messaging in the UAE, and the TRA confirmed that no change has been made to the VoIP policy with specific reference to the Microsoft-owned service.
“As to what the licensees have done in unblocking Skype’s website in the UAE, this action does not change the position of the TRA or amend the policy as this service is considered a Regulated Activity, therefore, it must be provided by a licensee. Should the service be provided through a partnership with a third party, both licensees must seek approval to provide such service after fulfilling the regulatory and technical requirements of the TRA, which has not happened in the case of Skype. VoIP services through Skype are still unauthorised,” the TRA said.
The regulator added that Viber, which also offers VoIP services elsewhere in the world, is also not licensed in the UAE.
Etisalat’s reported reaction to ban WhatsApp voice calling in the UAE is not very surprising, with other telecom operators having already made clear their reluctance to freely allow VoIP and other OTT services to operate. Specifically, India’s leading operator, Bharti Airtel, had back in December announced plans to rollout VoIP calling packs in the country, attributing the move to the potential loss in investment of rolling out data network infrastructure across the country.
Airtel later reversed its decision, saying it would wait for Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to release its consultation paper on OTT services, which essentially includes all apps and services that make use of the Internet