As the UAE's telecoms regulator is in talks with Microsoft and Apple about the potential lifting of a ban on Skype and FaceTime, Daniel Bardsley considers three possible outcomes
Skype ban in the UAE: what the future may hold for VoIP services
The news that discussions are happening over a potential lifting of the ban on Skype and FaceTime in the UAE is likely to be welcomed by residents keen to use these services.
At the moment, instead of free services available through the internet, people often have to instead use alternatives provided by local telecoms providers such as Etisalat.
While officials say take-up of these paid-for services is increasing, their higher costs put them beyond the reach of many.
In restricting the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is following the example of a number of other nations in the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond.
Morocco, for example, blocked a host of services including WhatsApp and Skype in early 2016, although the ban did not last until the end of the year, while Qatar has also restricted the use of VoIP services. In September, Saudi Arabia scrapped a ban on internet voice and video communications. Late last year, China banned Skype.
The reason behind bans can be unclear. Although licensing is often given as the reason to block services, analysts have said commercial reasons, especially the likely loss of revenue to state-controlled telecoms providers, and security concerns, because of the use of encrypted communications, are more likely to be at play.
The UAE has several options ahead of it:
Unblock VoIP services but, to deal with security concerns, look for ways to access the information they transmit
The encryption used with many internet calling services has been cited as a reason why they are blocked in the UAE. It is an issue that has also been raised in other parts of the world.
There has been a block on calling features provided by the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber and Snapchat, while Microsoft-owned Skype, also blocked in the UAE, announced in January that it would offer end-to-end encryption
There are, however, methods that governments can employ to gain access to encrypted data.
“When you’re on a mobile phone or internet, there are many ends after the information is decrypted. It’s sitting around … It could be done on the code running the devices,” said Keith Martin, professor of information security at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“There are many places around which access can be given before the encryption or after the encryption.”
Citing the encryption dispute between Apple and the FBI, he said third parties could sometimes gain access to data when service providers refused to assist, although “it’s hard to do that en masse”.
He said it was likely that in some instances providers had come to agreements to provide governments with data, although such arrangements were not announced publicly. There have also been much-publicised cases where providers such as WhatsApp have refused to provide access to data.
Allow people to use Skype and similar services, but attempt to impose additional charges to recoup revenue lost through reduced use of the VoIP services provided by local telecoms companies
According to Dr Chris Doyle, a UK-based consultant who has written on telecommunications systems across the world, it would be technically feasible for authorities to levy fees on those using services such as Skype.
This is an approach that might be considered to mitigate the loss of revenues that operators such as Du and Etisalat would face as a result of reduced demand for their own internet calling services. Etisalat’s recently launched VoIP apps include BOTIM and C’Me.
However, although technically possible, Dr Doyle said introducing local charges for using the likes of Skype would “a very difficult thing to do in practice” and he did not know of a country where such a system had been implemented.
“It requires quite invasive technology to monitor what people actually use. If they’re prepared to do that, it’s risky. For every Skype, there are lots of possible providers [such as] FaceTime. You would have to apply these charges across the board; it would be quite complex,” said Dr Doyle.
The complexity means it would “probably [be] incredibly costly to implement.
“It’s something that might be suggested as a way of intimidating politicians to continue with the status quo,” he said.
Remove all licensing requirements and allowing people to use Skype and similar services without additional charges or restrictions
Some countries, such as Morocco, that previously restricted the use of VoIP services, have lifted restrictions.
Local telecommunications operators can instead try to recoup revenues by selling higher-quality internet telephone services that are mainly targeted at businesses.
The telecoms consultant Dr Chris Doyle said this was likely to be a more realistic option than attempting to claw back revenues by imposing charges for the use of FaceTime or Skype.
“If people choose to use something else other than the locally provided voice service, I’m afraid that’s the way of commerce,” he said.
He said telecoms companies such as the UK's BT had been successful in attracting businesses to their own VoIP services because the quality is higher.
“If the masses want to use lower-quality services by Skype, let them get on with it and make use of the infrastructure and offer dedicated services for those willing to pay, which tends to be business users,” he said.
He said companies such as Etisalat could concentrate on increasing revenues from monthly fees for internet use, helping to make up for the loss of use of their own VoIP services.