The Battle over VoIP and resisting the future – Trend towards Skype, Viber and What’s App begins to bite into African operators’ premium revenues

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The recent blocking of VoiP and IP-based services by all three operators in Morocco is the first shot in what is going to turn into all-out war across the continent this year. IP-based services are cutting operators’ premium international calling services. With 4G now spreading rapidly operators are on the wrong end of these changes. Russell Southwood looks at how things are developing.

On 5 January Moroccan users of Skype, Viber, What’s App and Facetime woke up to find that these services had been blocked by all three operators – Maroc Telecom, Meditel and Inwi - on both 3G and 4G. The blockage was in the words of a local report in Medias 24 “quasi total”. Use of VoIP calling on Wi-Fi still worked but only intermittently.

According to a source Medias 24 spoke to in one of the operators, the intention was to keep the blockage in place over the next two months. The operators felt they were on solid ground because regulator ANRT’s article 1 ANRT/DG/No 04-04 says that IP services are legal but can only be operated by licensed carriers.

Local You Tube channel operator Amin Raghib with more than a million subscribers compained:”I’m completely against this blockage…I pay the operator for Internet among Internet services is VoIP. It’s the operators’ nightmare. These applications lower operators’ revenues, particularly with the implementation of 4G.”

“The traditional telephone line is in the process of dying out. In the United States, VoIP is completely legal and this has inspired the operators to be more creative about offering Internet services rather than telecoms one.”

It took the national regulator two days to break its silence and pronounce on the issue. Its public statement echoed the ANRT article quoted above:”all providers of public communications services must conform to the legal and regulatory obligations covering the sector and that terms of their agreement (with the regulator).

It would be easy to see this as yet another small dispute about the legality of VoIP of the kind that has rumbled on over the last 15 years in Africa. However, there are two things that will make this a make or break year:

1. Three applications – Skype, What’s App and Viber – are increasing in popularity right across the continent. When I was in Mali – one of Africa’s poorest countries - in February 2015, everyone I spoke to said Viber was the most popular application. Operators tried to block it and failed. For a country like Senegal where 52% of the population now have smartphones, the increasing use of IP-based services is not just likely but almost guaranteed.

2. Various of the larger international mobile operators (including one of the key ones in Morocco) have been conspiring together to start a campaign to undermine the success of the OTT operators. The aim is to start by blocking OTT services and then providing premium data services to access them. The problem for the cabal of operators that is conspiring to this end is that not all operators agree with this stance. For example, this week saw Tigo proudly announce that it has 1 million Swahili users on Facebook.

What is at issue here? The way data is sold and used - both at a retail and wholesale (eg peering) level - completely changes the nature of the industry. The attempts to block VoIP services on the basis that they are illegal is the equivalent of holding back the future. Both regulators and operators have to admit to themselves that tomorrow’s industry will be unlike today’s and start putting in place regulations that reflect this future. Remember unified licences rather than technology specific ones? Now there needs to licences that do not discriminate against the use of IP-based services.

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