Viber is not enough

A number of voice over IP (VoIP) services have been available to the public in Oman for about two years now, but many of the internationally popular ones are still blocked for no logical reason.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) has traditionally blocked access to all VoIP services such as Skype, Viber, and Google Talk, on the grounds that these services are regulated by law and can be provided in Oman only after registering and acquiring a licence from TRA.

TRA claims that it requires this licence in order to protect the consumer rights of users in Oman, enable the government to collect taxes from these providers, and provide employment opportunities to Omanis.

It is difficult to take these justifications seriously to argue that VoIP should be blocked in Oman, especially if you realise that the same arguments can be made in regard to any other generic web service such as e-mail (Gmail), physical goods web stores (Amazon), and digital goods web stores (iTunes), all of which are available in Oman even though they are not registered with any authority domestically.

It is widely believed that the real reason why VoIP has traditionally been blocked is TRA’s fear that allowing VoIP freely could harm the profits that local telecom companies make from international phone calls.

This is not a hard theory to believe, especially in the case of Omantel - a company in which the government remains the majority shareholder. In the first half of 2012, TRA had a change of heart and decided to allow only one specific type of VoIP: voice over IP that allows calls from two devices connected to the Internet.

An example of such as service is Viber. The TRA still blocks other VoIP services, such as Skype, that allow users to use the Internet to connect to the traditional telephony network to call a regular phone.

The availability of VoIP, even in a restricted way, was a great achievement for the public in Oman. Users in Oman can now cheaply call their loved one who are abroad without having to pay extortionate fees, more people feel the need to buy new smartphones to take advantage of Viber and similar services, and consumers in Oman are using the Internet on their phones more than ever.

Everyone has been a winner in this story: The users can make cheap phone calls, the telecom companies are selling more data plans, and sellers of mobile phones are selling more devices.

The arguments for blocking Skype did not make sense from the very start, and they make even less sense now that TRA has allowed other VoIP services to be used. Are the users of Skype entitled to a higher level of consumer protection than those who use Viber?

Is the employment of Omanis in Skype of a bigger economic value than the employment of Omanis in Viber? Allowing Viber and other VoIP services was a great move by TRA, but we should not stop here.

Skype and other advanced VoIP service can enable Oman to join the global dialogue that takes place on the Internet, it can help Omanis create new job opportunities for themselves, and it can enable us to stay in touch with those we care about in any method we choose.

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