Phone call revolution as Skype is officially unblocked in UAE
The telecoms operator Etisalat today joined its rival du in unblocking the Skype website, from where users can download the necessary software to use the global Voice over IP service.
Calls to other Skype users are free. Calls to landlines and mobile phones are charged through a user-account credit system.
Savings can be considerable. Skype pay-as-you-go calls to the United Kingdom cost 8.4 fils a minute compared with Dh1.91 to Dh2.69 on Etisalat. Calls to India cost about 34 fils on Skype and Dh1.89 to Dh2.40 on Etisalat.
Etisalat's announcement today on its Facebook page ended years of confusion since Skype was released in 2003. Although the Skype website was blocked, many subscribers downloaded the software overseas and used it here without difficulty.
For years, both Etisalat and du said Skype was banned by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. As recently as last month Etisalat said Skype was "categorised as unlicensed VoIP, thus banned as per local regulations". The TRA itself has always said no such ban exists.
Echoes of that confusion remained today. The Skype website and software were freely available and Skype-to-Skype calls worked over an Etisalat home broadband connection. However, Skype calls on an Etisalat mobile internet connection, and from a computer to a landline, failed to connect.
Subscribers to du have been downloading and using Skype software for the past two weeks, for Skype-to-Skype calls and to fixed phone lines.
Du, however, continues to insist that its customers are doing no such thing. It said last month: "There has been no change in the treatment of VoIP traffic, including Skype, on our networks."
This week du's view changed to: "We are taking into consideration the growing customer interest in this VoIP area and are working on a few solutions for the UAE market."
A representative for Microsoft, which owns Skype, said it had not been informed of any changes in the way the service was treated in the region.
With the relaxation of rules for Skype, residents are now asking when and whether they might be allowed to use other VoIP services such as Apple's FaceTime or Viber, which are in theory governed by the same rules as Skype but remain blocked by both providers.
Both du and Etisalat currently offer their own VoIP calling cards, which can be used to call a limited number of countries at a cheaper rate than a standard international phone call.
Facebook users gave a mixed reaction to the news, some thanking the company for its decision and others vexed that they could still not make full use of the service.
The difference in how du and Etisalat treat the Skype service opens up a clear point of different between the two providers.
However, most internet users do not have a choice, with services in most areas provided only by one company or the other.
Despite encouragement from the TRA, talks between du and Etisalat on "network sharing" - which would allow users to choose their internet provider - have been under way for at least three years without progress.
Network sharing involves the owner of the fixed line into a property allowing competing providers to use the line, at a cost.
If implemented, it would bring genuine competition to a market where broadband remains expensive by global standards.
In the early stages of the discussions, technical difficulties in deploying the relevant "bitstream" technology were given as the reason for the delay.
This, however, has since been solved, In July 2010, the TRA said both operators were "technically ready to open their fixed-line networks for competition" and in mid-2011 residents of the Burj Khalifa were among the first to be given a choice.
In July that year, the TRA said that "in order to introduce nationwide competition ... Etisalat and du are working together to bring choice for consumers and businesses in their selection of fixed telecommunications service providers.
"Business and residential customers in the UAE will soon have the ability to choose between operators for their fixed line voice and broadband services."
However, by January last year progress had stalled again, with the TRA saying it was delaying full commercial implementation "until the completion of technical readiness".
In March last year, Fintan Healy, executive director of regulatory affairs at the TRA, said "both Etisalat and Du are technically and operationally ready". But more than a year later, users are still waiting.
Last month, Zawya Dow Jones reported that Etisalat had rejected a TRA consultation document, published in December, which recommended network sharing as a partial remedy for Etisalat's market dominance.
It reported that Etisalat had deemed the document "considerably insufficient" and asked the regulator to conduct a second round of analysis.
Du said: "Discussion on fixed network sharing is ongoing between the two operators under the supervision of Telecom Regulatory Authority." The TRA and Etisalat both refused to comment.