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Caribbean cellular providers under fire for blocking free call apps
Published on July 12, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Caribbean News Now contributor

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Caribbean cellular providers Digicel and LIME are facing a backlash from consumers and investigations from regulatory agencies over blocking customers from using popular third party Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications.

Last month, Digicel, which promotes itself as “The Bigger, Better Network” and tells consumers to “Expect More, Get More”, blocked all such applications, including Viber, Skype, Tango, Nimbuzz and MagicJack, from running on the company’s 4G network on devices using a SIM card. These same applications apparently remain fully functional on all computers and tablets that do not use SIM cards.

LIME Jamaica, which encourages its customers to “Value Every Moment” and offers its own VoIP services, also confirmed that it has blocked Viber.

"In order to maintain network quality for our customers, LIME confirms it has been reviewing unauthorised access to its networks," LIME said in a statement. "As part of the review, LIME will no longer carry Viber voice calling on its networks."

Viber, while not as well known in the region as WhatsApp, has more than 280 million users in 193 countries. It is estimated that about 100 million people use the service each month.

However, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) announced that it would launch an inquiry into the issue and requested Digicel to remove the block while it conducts its investigation.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, TATT said that it had asked Digicel to reconsider its position in relation to the provision of access to consumers such that all consumers in Trinidad and Tobago are treated equally in the interim period.

“Whilst the Authority has made no determination or decision in the matter, we believe that the maintenance of the provision of these services in the interim period would be in the best interest of all stakeholders and would allow the Authority time to engage in this process in a calm and constructive manner,” TATT said.

Effective Wednesday, Digicel agreed to accede to TATT’s request and restore service for the time being whilst preserving its rights in relation to the matter generally.

However, the restriction of services by Digicel and LIME may create an opportunity for greater competition in the regional and local markets since the other telecommunications company in Trinidad and Tobago, the Telecommunication Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT), which operates as bmobile, described VoIP service as an “inescapable feature of modern telecommunications” that is comparable to “e-mail and games”.

“bmobile’s policy on the matter as far as use of VoIP on its mobile network is concerned is that … customers pay a subscription fee for this access and once customers have bought data services from bmobile, customers determine how they wish to use their data,” TSTT said in a statement. “VoIP essentially is data on the mobile network much like email, YouTube, social media or downloading apps and games.”

Digicel and LIME complain that unauthorised applications offering free voice service is direct and unfair competition with the traditional voice services they provide, by using the existing network bandwidth without compensation for the financial investments made in their data networks.

Digicel described such applications as parasites.

“Unlicensed VoIP operators like Viber and Nimbuzz use telecoms networks to deliver their services, but they do not pay any money for the privilege,” Digicel said in a statement. “This unauthorized activity puts enormous pressures on bandwidth -- which means customers’ data usage experience is negatively impacted as a result. As such, Digicel has been forced to take firm action to prevent this parasitic activity.”

However, according to industry analysts, what is driving the VoIP block are the lucrative termination fees Digicel and other carriers lose with every phone call that goes over the Internet.

The revenue shortfall for Digicel in Haiti, with over four million customers, is estimated by the company to be between $500,000 and $1 million per year.

An internet petition launched in Haiti protesting the action by Digicel had obtained 1,112 signatures as of Wednesday. Digicel’s decision has also been challenged on legal and technical grounds that only Haiti’s regulatory agency, CONATEL, can block such services.

Andrew Wheatley, Jamaica’s opposition spokesman on Information and Communication Technology, said blocking the apps is a move “in the wrong direction” especially in a country trying to encourage technological innovation.

“It stifles innovation. It stifles growth and it stifles entrepreneurship,” he said, adding that he was surprised that Digicel would go this route. “The Jamaican consumer over the years has contributed greatly to the expansion and development of Digicel; not only in Jamaica but with our worldwide brand.”

In the meantime, Digicel and LIME may find that blocking such “parasitic” applications may well be akin to playing a game of whack-a-mole, since developers have a long history of quickly adapting new and existing software to evade such communications restrictions and access, whether attempted for the purposes of political censorship such as that imposed by Turkey and Venezuela, or commercial protectionism.

Viber CEO Talmon Marco told customers this week that the company plans to bypass the Digicel block.

“Users should make sure they have the latest version of Viber installed so that they are best able to use the app. Viber will continue to operate as usual in light of these current developments,” he said.
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