You'd be surprised what you can learn from gamers in the UAE. You might think they would only be a good indicator of console, game and junk food sales, but I've found that they offer the occasional insight into the local telecommunications industry too, especially where the internet is concerned.
The use of the internet in gaming — from online worlds to consoles — isn't news to most people, but the use of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoiP) might be. Gamers long ago discovered it's hard to "nuke the boss" while simultaneously chatting (typing) with each other online. Some titles offer in-games VoiP applications, but most PC gamers turn to third-party voice servers, such as Ventrilo and Teamspeak. These apps allow groups of up to 40 people (depending on the servers and services provided) to talk to each other over their computer's internet connection.
These programs aren't necessarily easy to use. The companies that make them require users to download their application and then either create a new server or log into an existing one. Anyone looking to use "Vent", as it's known in the gaming community, as a way to call home to Mom will be disappointed. While it is theoretically possible to use a mobile phone with a voice server, these systems are generally propriety and won't allow you to dial a landline or mobile phone number.
That's the important part for the telcos in the UAE. Etisalat and du ban access to websites that provide VoiP telephony services. The TRA has said the block is due to consumer protection and regulatory reasons, but most expats say the block is simply an excuse designed to protect etisalat's and du's revenues. It's generally believed that most expats wouldn't hesitate to bypass local international rates for dirt cheap VoiP rates.
There is an exception to the VoiP ban, though. Spokespeople for the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) have long said that VoiP services that don't involve telephony (i.e. are strictly computer-to-computer communications) are legal in the UAE. That means Vent and TeamSpeak are OK, right?
Not always. While I've never found any evidence that etisalat blocked services like Ventrilo or TeamSpeak, I spoke to a number of IT professionals in the UAE who told me du did. When I switched to du myself in December, I got online and tried it out. Du was blocking some computer-only voice servers, although some — like web-based Voxli.com — apparently had avoided detection.
Then sometime last week the ban on those servers was lifted. Not surprisingly, there was no word from du about the block or why it had been removed. Gamers in the UAE were suddenly back on Vent, chatting to their friends all over the world.
The move has sparked speculation that this is the start of a shift by the telecoms to allow VoiP. The TRA has said that VoiP-based telephony will be introduced in the UAE, although neither TRA, etisalat or du have said much about when this will happen. Disappointingly, the TRA has said that the right to offer these services will still belong to UAE-based telcos. That means that unless Skype comes and sets up shop in the UAE — and presumably gets a telco licence — they'll still be blocked.
As I've said earlier, the TRA defends this as a regulatory and consumer rights issue.
Well, if the TRA is blocking sites based on that, then they are failing miserably and need to start blocking thousands of other sites. What about Amazon.com? They don't have offices here, but they're not blocked. Ebay? iTunes? Well? Why with all the e-commerce going on does the TRA think the one consumer right that needs safeguarding is VoiP?
The short answer is that the expats seem to be right. The VoiP block is just there to make sure money goes to local operators. This is silly, counter-productive and ultimately unenforceable. Expats have for years been using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) like Hotspotshield.com to bypass the local proxy and use Skype (gamers as a general rule don't do this because of latency issues, but that's another column).
The assumption that VoiP will destroy the local telecoms is also silly. VoiP has been in use in the Western world for years, and giants like AT&T and Verizon haven't gone belly up, mainly because VoiP isn't for everyone. On Skype, poor sound quality and dropped calls are a fact of life. Whether such services will survive here in the UAE should be a matter of free-market economics, not thinly veiled protectionism.