The importance of VoIP phone systems or cloud telephony in everyday life and business cannot be overlooked. Whether one wants to communicate with their coworkers who are located all around the world due to the multinational nature of their company or simply to chat with their friends living abroad without having to pay enormous bills, voice over IP is there to help.
However, every technology requires some level of regulation to prevent it from being misused. The same can be said for VoIP phone system too. For instance, in the United States, cloud telephony services must comply with the Enhanced 911 system.
This means that if a subscriber’s physical location changes, they must notify their service provider. It’s done this way so that a service provider can automatically notify 911 of the caller’s location if there’s an emergency.
Unfortunately, not all countries adhere to the same general principle. With a market as large as VoIP, some regimes believe it is time to start doing what they do best: banning and blocking left and right.
Let’s take a look at one of these totalitarian regimes–Oman, and figure out what they think about VoIP and why they chose to ban it.
The State Of VoIP Phone System In Oman
This Middle Eastern country has gone quite far in its opposition to voice over Internet protocol, among other things. According to the Freedom House report, Oman is one of the least free countries in the world, with all three branches of power firmly in the hands of the sultan, who has ruled since before VoIP was a thing.
Any business that offers cloud telephony services in Oman must be registered with the Omani Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). Needless to say, many people– particularly foreign organizations, are dissatisfied with these regulations due to the complexity of the process as well as the state’s frequent interference.
Unlicensed VoIP services are prohibited in Oman and the state doesn’t hesitate to enforce the ban in the harshest ways. For instance, more than 200 people were arrested in 2009 during police raids on Internet cafes for providing this type of service. In addition to a hefty fine of around $130,000, the punishment for this crime includes two years in prison.
In addition, websites of cloud telephony service providers that are not registered with the government are blocked in Oman, and using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to circumvent the blocks is not an option. As of today, the unauthorized use of this technology is prohibited, too. Just like top VoIP providers, VPN services also have to apply for a license with the TRA, and the websites of those who do not have it are blocked.
According to Omani researcher Riyadh Abdul Aziz, due to this carpet ban on VoIP phone system, many of his countrymen have turned to free VPNs to access voice over IP services that are illegal as well in their country. However, many netizens are unaware of the predatory business models of those free services, putting themselves in danger; believes Aziz.
What Are The Causes Of These Measures?
Aziz’s article sheds light on why the Omani government has decided to outright ban VoIP phone system in their country. According to him, this is due to the fact that VoIP providers compete directly with Omantel– the largely state-owned Internet services provider. As we all know, cloud telephony providers provide their customers with international calls that are significantly less expensive than those provided by traditional telecom companies.
For Oman, it is a big deal. A large proportion of its population (around 44%, or almost 2 million people) comprises non-citizens. According to the World Bank, the economy of Oman is a high-income one, thanks in large part to its oil reserves. This fact inevitably draws immigrants to the country where its draconian naturalization laws make it all but impossible for them to acquire citizenship.
Naturally, all those immigrants who do not feel at home in Oman, even years after arriving, used to contact relatives and friends in their home countries via phone. Furthermore, statistics show that the majority of migrants to Oman come from Asian and Arab countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia. The average household size in those regions has traditionally been larger than in Europe or North America, implying that immigrants have more family members to call.
All of this adds up to a lot of money spent on international calls, which VoIP phone system can help you save. And, given that the country’s leading telecom provider is so inextricably linked to the state, it’s easy to see why the use of voice over Internet protocol is effectively prohibited in Oman.
As a result, it appears rather clear that the Omani VoIP phone system restrictions are not imposed to make life more difficult for political dissidents, though the sultan undoubtedly considers it a very pleasant side-effect, given the country’s state of human rights. But, it’s just a heinous form of protectionism and a refusal to compete with new technologies.
Is Oman’s VoIP Phone System Ban Justified?
No, morally, it can not be justified. To prohibit the citizens and other inhabitants of one’s own country from doing something as innocuous as making calls via VoIP phone system is a despicable deed as well as an attack on citizen rights. It is made even more despicable by the insanely harsh punishments that providers face.
But, from an economic standpoint, are the sultan and his men correct in blocking VoIP? Or Is banning VoIP or cloud telephony the right thing to do, even if it is undemocratic? The answer is yet again “NO,” because it would be wise for the Omani telecom companies to accept the new reality of the world they live in. Besides, putting a ban or censorship on something you don’t agree with is never an option; instead, they should regulate it.
Remember, legacy solutions cannot compete with newer, Internet-enabled solutions. VoIP phone system will always outperform traditional telephony systems in terms of convenience and cost. This is why state-owned telecommunications companies should focus on developing their own cloud telephony solutions rather than relying on anti-competitive measures.
Fortunately, most countries are aware of this simple fact. Even Oman’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which isn’t known for being a particularly liberal country, lifted the ban in 2017. The stated reasons for this were to “spur digital entrepreneurship” and “kick-start the Saudi economy.”
When Saudi Arabia makes a better decision than you, even if it means granting more freedom to its citizens, it’s a good time to pause and consider whether you’re doing something wrong. But it’s been years, and the situation with VoIP in Oman is still in shambles.
Which Other Countries Have Banned VoIP Phone Systems?
Unfortunately, Oman isn’t the only country that has banned VoIP phone system. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Crimea are just a few of the countries that have taken the same path. The majority of these countries have justified their censorship by citing “security reasons.”
Also, many of these countries’ governments claim that foreign organizations and terror groups have used VoIP technology to destabilize their countries and promote cyber terrorism. Some countries have also outlawed VoIP phone system in order to protect state-owned telecommunications companies from competition and, as a result, revenue loss.
But, in the end, all of these totalitarian states must recognize that a carpet ban or censorship is never a viable solution to any problem. Instead, they should come up with some efficient regulations that benefit both the state and the citizens.
It is common knowledge that totalitarian regimes despise democratic structures and are constantly on the lookout for ways to prevent their own citizens from speaking out against their autocratic system and laws. The prohibition of VoIP phone system and cloud telephony is merely an extension of that same blueprint. However, we hope that these countries will soon recognize the power and benefits of VoIP and lift the carpet ban that has been imposed on it.
(Update: On March 17, 2020, in the wake of the current COVID-19 spread, the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) lifted restrictions on VoIP calls and permitted the use of some apps that were previously prohibited in the country.)