x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

UAE SMEs frustrated over Skype outage

The popular internet calling service stopped working across much of the country on Friday, with several reports of international users unable to hear or see UAE-based callers

Continuing uncertainty over the use of Skype and similar internet calling services places a burden on the UAE’s small business community, and threatens to undermine the country’s growing status as a business hub, according to local business professionals.

The popular internet calling service stopped working across much of the country on Friday, with several reports of international users unable to hear or see UAE-based callers.

While early reports suggested the service failure was due to an attack by international hackers, the company later clarified the service had been blocked.

“It has been brought to our attention that our website and services have been blocked by both of the ISPs (internet service providers) in the United Arab Emirates,” said Skype in a statement at the time of the outage.

“Unfortunately, there is very little Skype can do about this situation.”

Small business owners responded to the outage with frustration.

“We rely heavily on Skype and similar apps to communicate internationally,” said Elissa Freiha, the founder of Dubai-based angel investment platform Womena.

“It’s frustrating not being able to use services that have become standard tools for international communication,” she said.

The inability to communicate internationally via Skype threatens to place an undue cost burden on small businesses in the UAE, a Dubai-based business owner told The National.

Skype is an integral aspect of my day-to-day operations as I not only deal with clients and businesses here in the UAE, but also in various international geographies,” said the business owner, who asked to remain anonymous.

“It is not economically viable to be always on the office or cell phone for calls that last more than 60 minutes on occasion.”

“As this problem has come to light it has already affected me financially in terms of overhead costs and client face-time and as such there will need to be a solution soon or one of my USPs (unique selling points) will need to change, which has the potential to affect the business on a large scale,” he explained.

The restriction on Skype came after voice calls over WhatsApp were briefly enabled in the UAE at the end of last week, after previously having been unavailable.

The UAE’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) said at the time however that its position on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services was unchanged, and that such services could only be provided by licensed telecoms operators.

“Operators here have generally argued against enabling internet-calling services, saying that these have a big, negative impact on their calling revenues, which undermines their ability to invest in their networks,” said Matthew Reed, a Dubai-based analyst with the consultancy Ovum.

Telecoms operator du last week confirmed in a statement “its commitment to the laws and regulations governing the telecommunications sector in the UAE, and covering voice and video over IP, as aligned with the tra of the UAE.”

Du and Etisalat did not respond to requests for comment on the Skype outage during the Eid Al Fitr holiday.

TRAdeclined to comment on whether any action had been taken regarding Skype.

The inability to use communication services such as Skype threatens to undermine the UAE’s ambitions as a hub for international business and a growth centre for entrepreneurs and small businesses, according to Ms Freiha.

“As teams become more international it becomes that much more difficult keeping a foot in the UAE when you’re not able to communicate properly,” she said.

“I travel around the world promoting women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship in the UAE, but when I can’t have a Skype call with my team back home it feels like hypocrisy.”

Aaron Oliver, the Middle East head of fintech community Next Money, agreed.

"UAE innovation needs tech tools to thrive," said Mr Oliver in post on Twitter yesterday.

jeverington@thenational.ae