Egypt to ban Skype VoIP to PSTN on mobile phones?

Mobile phone use has exploded in most of the Middle East and southern regions of Asia, providing a valuable resource of tax revenue for governments. There are other ominous reasons why it is doing this.

Reuters reports Egypt's National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority head Amr Badawy said earlier this month his country will ban international calls through mobile Internet connections. Mobile phone use has exploded in most of the Middle East and southern regions of Asia, providing a valuable resource of tax revenue for governments. Technology however has leapfrogged early telephone network billing and voice signal systems that track telephone usage affecting how regulators collect termination fees on long distance phone calls. Enter Skype with software applications that offer VoIP solutions that bypass voice signal processing (i.e. SS-7) that tracks and monitors call details required to bill the mobile network provider which passes on those fees to the subscriber. Newer technology can block VoIP protocols. Doing so would require software upgrades by the regulator and Mobile phone companies voice termination equipment.

Wireless telecommunications has been under increasing pressure and monitoring across the Middle East including Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan where governments regularly crack down on VoIP calls and cracked GSM phones with unregistered SIMM cards. It appears Egypt is also on the same path to intensified regulatory telecom management. The Reuters report suggests that Skype was aware that there are concerns by Egyptian telecom regulators;

Skype, which has more than 500 million users worldwide, said in an e-mail statement that it was "seeking clarification" from the regulator about the reported ban.

"In general, we believe it should be up to consumers, not regulatory authorities, to choose the winners and losers in the communications space. That is what happens in competitive markets," it said.

The ban applies to Egypt's three mobile operators -- Mobinil, Etisalat Egypt and Vodafone Egypt -- offering Internet access for computers via USB and other mobile modems, as well as mobile handsets. It does not apply to fixed lines.

But in a request for clarification of Skype's position, Sravanthi Agrawal, press spokesperson for Skype for Egypt said:

We are surprised by the article and are seeking clarification from NTRA as to its accuracy. In general, we believe it should be up to consumers, not regulatory authorities, to choose the winners and losers in the communications space. That is what happens in competitive markets.

A request for comment to the NTRA has gone unanswered.

Telecommunications throughout the Middle East is coming under increasing political pressure to control how information sharing flows in and out of the region and appears to be worsening. Using mobile phone data networks avoids long distance termination fees charged by the country's Telecom authority - that's the primary rationale. In all likelihood it goes far deeper than that. It also ensures that any phone calls initiated on a mobile smart phone device can be monitored and wiretapped without data encryption interfering on a voice call.

Additional resources:

Internet Governance Forum goes to Egypt and hits a few snags

Pakistan continues crackdown on illegal VOIP gateway networks

Nokia burned by EU for assisting Iran with monitoring technology

Iran bans use of Gmail; Can Venezuela be far behind?

Iran demonstrations: Plenty of Internet news, but is it reliable?

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