The utility of VoIP apps in everyday life and in business is indisputable. 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.
And its popularity only grows. The VoIP market is predicted to reach $145 billion by 2024, more than quintupling the 2014 figure. There is definitely a lot of money and opportunities and in such an environment, some regulations are warranted.
Regulations imposed by most countries can be described as reasonable. In the USA, for example, there are requirements for VoIP services to comply with the Enhanced 911 system. What it means is that all subscribers have to inform their providers if they change their physical location. It is done in order to make it possible for a provider to automatically let 911 know of the caller’s location if there is an emergency. And it makes sense because human well-being and even lives may depend on this information.
So, while it’s not very easy to implement and may cause annoyance of VoIP users and providers alike, it is done to make life safer.
Not all countries follow the same general idea, though. With the market as huge as that of VoIP, some regimes feel like there’s a need to start doing what they do best: banning and blocking left and right.
Let’s take a look at one of these regimes and try to determine what its reasoning is.
The state of VoIP in Oman
This Middle Eastern country has gone quite far in its opposition to voice over Internet protocol, among other things. With all three branches of power firmly in the hands of the sultan who has been ruling since before VoIP was a thing, Oman is considered to be among the least free countries in the world, according to the Freedom House report.
Any company that provides the VoIP service in Oman must be registered with the Omani Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). Needless to say, not many (especially foreign ones) are because of the complexity of the process.
Unlicensed VoIP services are banned in Oman and the state doesn’t hesitate to enforce the ban in the harshest ways. In 2009, more than two hundred people were arrested in police raids on Internet cafes for providing this type of service. The punishment for this crime includes a hefty fine of around $130 thousand and two years of jail time in addition to that.
Websites of VoIP providers not registered with the government are blocked in Oman and if someone thought to bypass the blocks by using a virtual private network (VPN), that would not be possible too. As of 2010 and to the present day, the unauthorized use of this technology is prohibited, too. Similarly to 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.
There is a bit of a silver lining in this case, however. The Omani caught using a VPN are only fined for approximately $1.300 and aren’t incarcerated.
Other dangers do await them, though. According to Omani researcher Riyadh Abdul Aziz, a great number of his compatriots have turned to use free VPNs to access voice over IP services banned in their country. However, Aziz writes, many netizens do not fully realize the predatory business models of those free services and put themselves into danger.
What are the causes of these measures?
Aziz’s article sheds some light on the reason why the Omani government has seen it fit to ban VoIP in their country en masse. In his opinion, it is because VoIP providers are in direct competition with Omantel, the largely state-owned Internet services provider. As we all know, voice over IP providers offers their customers international calls that are considerably cheaper than those offered by traditional telecom companies.
For Oman, it is a big deal. A large proportion of its population (around 44%, or almost 2 million people) is composed of 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 enough, all those immigrants who do not feel at home in Oman even years after coming there call their relatives and friends in the countries they have left behind. Moreover, statistics show that most migrants come to Oman from Asian and Arab countries: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia. Traditionally, the average household size in those regions is bigger than in Europe or North America, meaning that the immigrants have more family members to call.
All of it combined results in large bills for international calls – and that is something that VoIP helps to avoid. And since the leading telecom provider in the country is so closely related to the state itself, it is easy to see why the use of voice over Internet protocol is effectively banned in Oman.
Therefore, it seems rather apparent that the Omani restrictions of VoIP are not imposed to make life harder for political dissidents, although, no doubts, the sultan considers it a very pleasant side-effect, given the state of human rights in the country. No, it is just an obscene form of protectionism and the unwillingness to compete against new technologies.
Is the Omani ban right?
Morally speaking, it absolutely is not. To prohibit the citizens and other inhabitants of one’s own country from doing something as innocuous as making calls via VoIP is a despicable deed, made even more despicable by the insanely harsh punishments that providers face.
But are the sultan and all his men right from the economic standpoint? Maybe the ban on VoIP is sensible if the cruel, thing to do?
But the answer is “no” yet again. A sensible thing for the Omani telecom companies to do would be to accept the new reality of the world they live in. And this world is a world of technology.
Indeed, legacy solutions can’t compete with newer, Internet-enabled ones. The convenience of voice over IP is always going to top whatever traditional telecommunications may offer. This is why telecom companies that are state-owned should work towards developing their own VoIP solutions instead of relying on protective measures to quash competition.
Luckily, most countries do understand this simple fact. Even Oman’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, also not known for being an extremely free state, lifted the same ban in 2017. The reasons given for that were “spurring digital entrepreneurship” in the country and “kick-starting the Saudi economy”.
When Saudi Arabia makes a sounder decision than you even though it means granting its citizens more freedom, it’s a good point to stop and think if you are doing something wrong. But two years have passed since then and the situation with VoIP in Oman is still in the mire.