Dubai: Federal telecommunications authorities in the UAE have yet to make any concrete declarations as to whether the new Skype-powered internet calling services offered by Facebook could lead to the social media site being banned.
Standalone Skype software has been banned for years in the UAE, but questions remain whether the same ban applies to internet calling offered within the Facebook platform.
Earlier this month, Facebook unveiled the tie-up with Skype to bolster free services offered to its 750 million users around the globe, sparking debate once again in the UAE where voice over internet protocol services (VoIP) are illegal.
When asked by Gulf News for clarification, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) reiterated its earlier position that VoiP services are regulated and can only be offered by licensed operators.
The TRA did not respond directly to the Facebook question.
Currently, only du and eisalat are licensed to offer such services in the UAE and operate under the country's telecom law federal law 3 of 2003.
"Services for Internet calls provided by third parties fall within the scope of this policy. As voice calls provided by Skype are considered to be a regulated activity, such services have to be provided by a licensee," TRA said in a statement issued to Gulf News.
"Hence it is illegal to use such software to make calls (Skype-out/Skype-in), unless this third party (Skype) is licensed by the TRA to provide such services or a licensee (for example: etisalat or du) provides the service in collaboration with this third party."
In its revised regulatory policy on VoIP, released December 30, 2009, the TRA stated that "while such technologies may bring some short-term advantages to consumers, if they are introduced and allowed to be provided on an unregulated basis at too early a stage in the development of a liberalizing regime, they can in fact be counterproductive as regards consumer interests and [limit] the process of introducing sustainable and meaningful competition."
The policy also gives du and etisalat the right to block any unlicensed party believed to be providing illegal VoIP services in the UAE.
The regulation states that licensees will "be entitled to block that VoIP service, unless instructed by the TRA to do otherwise."
In an earlier interview with Gulf News, Hassan Sandila, telecoms analyst for IDC Middle East, Turkey and Africa, said the new Facebook internet calling may not be an issue in the UAE because it does not allow Facebook subscribers to place internet calls from computers to landlines or mobile phones.
Computer to computer communications do not cut as deeply into international phone call revenues on which telecoms such as du and etisalat depend for a large portion of its financial balance sheets.
"Since it does not directly affect the revenue of the telecom operators, the Skype ban in the UAE is more to do with the PC to phone calls and not PC to PC calls. In all probability, like everywhere else in the world, Facebook users in the UAE should also be able to access the newly launched Facebook-Skype video-calling service," Sandila said.
"Otherwise, Facebook might not consider getting into regulatory matters because UAE accounts for very small proportion of the total Facebook subscriber base."
- 750m: estimated Skype users worldwide
- 30m: simultaneous Skype users in March 2011
- 13%: share of Skype software used for international calling minutes in 2010
- 9%: share of worldpopulation using Skype