Can we Skype now? [Week, The (Oman)]
(Week, The (Oman) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) New product strategies from Microsoft might influence Telecommunications Regulation Authority enough to revisit the prohibition of Skype in Oman
Earlier this year the Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) released a memo to Omantel and Nawras with an express order to unblock certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services in the sultanate. The surprise move came with no reason or change to the legal and technical requirements of the regulatory act that previously - and still does - banned unlicensed services in Oman. The list of VoIP services that has been given the green light include popular mobile and desktop applications Viber, PalTalk, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, or Windows Live Messenger. Curiously omitted from the list is Skype, which is still languishing for approval from TRA. But this could change in light of recent developments at Microsoft.
This month Microsoft announced that it was effectively retiring its MSN/Live Messenger client in favour of Skype, which is now owned and operated by Microsoft, starting the first quarter of 2013. The latest iteration of Skype migrates contacts from the older, now redundant service, and is integrated into their latest operating system, Windows 8. Several new products have been introduced running the OS, some petering into Oman, and one feature comes pre-installed - Skype. The integration of this service is not just on the surface, but quite deep, with other features, including email, interacting with Skype.
Addressing this change in the Skype service, Hilal O al Siyabi, media and consumer affairs manager at TRA, said, "We will certai-nly consider reviewing the case for Skype in light of this development, although we cannot guarantee anything. Microsoft is a registered and licensed company in Oman and as such can operate within the legal and technical framework of the regulations in Oman. However, VoIP services are telecom specific and as such still need to be registered or licensed separately.
"We are technology neutral at TRA and we do not pick and choose which services make it to consumers. All of the services are analysed on a case-by-case basis and become available to consumers after fulfilling the legal and technical requirements in Oman. Our main objective is to keep a level playing field in the market and that will reflect directly on the consumer. If someone has a complaint pertaining to a service or application like Skype, and there is no reference point in Oman, how would they address issues with the service or application That is why we require anyone who wis-hes to provide a telecom service in Oman to have a registered presence here or be licensed in Oman."
According to Riyadh al Balushi, an IT law expert based in Oman, there are problems with this line of thinking since Oman is a relatively small market and large companies like Google, Amazon or Facebook - the latter, incidentally also planning to launch a VoIP calling feature in the near future - would see little reason for the investment costs and tackling the legal and privacy constraints in Oman. Secondly, Microsoft and by extension Skype, being a registered company in Oman, would fulfil the criterion of having a local registered presence. The situation is a double-blow to consumers who already pay for mobile data and home broadband that have the bandwidth to support services like Skype.
"Windows Live Messenger already has features for making PC-to-phone calls similar to Skype, but TRA still found ways to allow Messenger to be used for text chatting but not VoIP. I am not sure if it is technically possible to do the same thing with Skype. If that is possible, and if TRA cares about letting people continue to remain in touch with their Messenger contacts, it would not be surprising if TRA chooses to try doing something like that to keep Skype VoIP blocked without limiting the chat features of it," said Riyadh.
The move to unblock some of the VoIP services in Oman could just be a test, but an important step nonetheless, especially in light of the sheer amount of international call traffic. "As more products make their way into the Oman market, consumers will be more aware of services like VoIP and will naturally create a demand," said Ajay Ganti, CEO of Al Seeb Technical (SARCO), which is the local distributor of Microsoft products as well as other electronics like Samsung. "Maybe operators will finally realise the potential revenue streams that could be generated from consumers using services like Skype, but it will take time," he added.
G V Rao, senior manager for the LG TV division at Oman Trading Est (OTE), said, "We are in full support of features like Skype because that's what smart TVs were made for - applications and web browsing for communications. Expatriates here buy the TVs to take home and when they ask about things like Skype, we tell them it works outside Oman, just not in Oman. If it did, we would see increased sales, not just for us, but smart TVs overall. All the mid-high end TVs now have functions like Skype built in. This is the future and we should embrace it or risk being backward."
Riyadh believes that TRA's decision to allow services such as Google Talk and Viber to be used in Oman is a clear indication that it has had a change of mind and is surely reconsidering the regulation of VoIP. "VoIP is increasingly becoming a primary feature of many web services and it will be impossible for the Internet in Oman to develop if TRA continues to block a core function of the Internet. While TRA argues that its decision to block Skype is made to ensure consumer protection and satisfy security obligations, these justifications cannot be taken seriously at all because they are not applied to other methods of web communication such as email."
Tariq al Barwani, CEO and president of Knowledge Oman also discussed the impact on operators in Oman, saying that it would specifically affect the revenues. "In my personal opinion this is the reason why the service is yet to be unblocked in the country. Imagine being able to make international calls, not only voice but also video, at a fraction of the cost that are charged by the local operators, wouldn't that be so attractive What operators need to do is really think differently in this instance, specifically on how to integrate the services together as a value to the customer by offering it and bundling it with the various packages they offer periodically."
According to TRA statistics, there were a total of 1.402bn minutes of international calls in and out of Oman, with revenue from mobile phone traffic in this regard alone amounting to RO68.18mn in 2011. "It is clear that the decision to block Skype is done to protect the financial interest of local telecom companies in making profits from international phone calls, but this is an extremely short sighted goal as allowing Skype and other forms of VoIP will push the users in Oman to pay telecom companies to subscribe to more data services," said Riyadh. Similar statistics show that the active mobile broadband subscription rate has also increased to 57.42 per cent as of September 2012, meaning more consumers are online and making use of data and broadband services. This trend is matched in step by technology manufacturers, who are integrating more and more features like Skype into their products to give consumers
more bang for the buck. Sadly, jumping on the Skype bandwagon is still prohibited.
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