Egypt’s regulator NTRA tries to hold back the wave of the future by banning apps like Viber and What’s App on investment and security grounds

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With data revenues set to exceed voice revenues by 2018 according to a GSMA report, there are still some places that are not yet on the programme for the new business model. This week the Egyptian regulator set up a Committee to look at whether to ban apps like Viber and What’s App. Russell Southwood looks at how Africa’s regulators need to stop looking at the future through the rearview mirror of history.

This week Egypt’s regulator set up a Committee to monitor mobile applications like Viber and What's App to “decide whether to ban, allow free usage or restrict them somehow”. However, the game was clear when the individual in charge of the task said they might need to be banned because of their impact on investment and security.

 According to the Head of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) Amr Badawy: "These applications allow subscribers to make free calls, messages and share files while their sources remain unknown. Pre-paid applications will face losses."

What’s App allows users to send free SMS’s over a data connection and Viber is very similar to Skype: bot require data connections that customers pay for. Perhaps the most damning thing the NTRA raised in its eyes about Viber was that it was developed by an Israeli company. Nearby neighbor Saudi Arabia’s regulator has recently banned Viber on the grounds that it leads to call losses for its hugely dominant incumbent.

However, Egypt has clearly got itself in something of a mess with Over-The-Top applications for it has said that Skype is OK for personal calls on a fixed line but must not be used for mobile calls as they must pass through an international gateway.

The Gambia’s regulator PURA found itself in a similar confusing position when it was initially quoted as banning Skype but later said that all it was making illegal was the use of Skype by cyber-café operators.

These two countries simply reflect the confusion and lack of direction that the continent’s regulators have about a future that will be based more or less entirely on traffic that will travel as IP data. Let’s have a quick rehearsal for those at the back of the class who might not have been listening in the last 12 months.

A GSMA report predicts that data revenues will exceed voice by 2018 globally and by 2016 in Kenya. 2016 is two and a half years away. At some point beyond 2018 everything – voice, Internet, video – will all be data. Canal boat owners lost their living when the railways arrived because an industry transition took place. Mobile operators are actually luckier than those canal boat owners. They will lose voice and SMS revenues but gain data revenues, particularly from the downloading and streaming of video.

Knowing all this, it would be nice to see one of the regional regulators’ associations or indeed maybe one of the continent’s more progressive regulators sit down and produce a future briefing paper. This should raise what kinds of things will change in the regulatory framework as this industry transition takes place and how it might be accelerated.

Africa’s consumers have voted overwhelmingly for Over-The-Top services that are not provided by mobile operators. This week it was reported that Badoo had achieved 6.5 million users in Nigeria, 3.6% of its overall user base. This is one of a dozen Over-The-Top services in Africa that has a user base larger than anything mobile operators have provided on their own platforms.

The end destination is not in question, only the speed and manner of the journey. The faster we get to the new data business model, the more Africans can share in the benefits it will bring.

For up-to-the minute news follow us on Twitter: @BalancingActAfr
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