The recent decision by all three telecommunications operators in Morocco to block voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) and other IP-based services is the first shot in what is going to turn into ugly war across Africa this year.
IP-based services are eating away at operators’ premium international calling services. With 4G/LTE now spreading rapidly across the continent, operators are on the wrong end of these changes.
On 5 January, Moroccan users of Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and FaceTime woke up to find that these services had been blocked by 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 at one of the operators, the intention was to keep the block in place over the next two months. The operators felt they were on solid ground because the country’s regulator has said that IP services were legal but could only be operated by licensed carriers.
Moroccan YouTube channel operator Amin Raghib, who has more than a million subscribers, complained: “I’m completely against this blockage… I pay the operator for Internet [and]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 US, VoIP is completely legal and this has inspired the operators to be more creative about offering Internet services rather than telecoms ones.”
It took the Moroccan regulator two days to respond. When it did, it reaffirmed its position that “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’s tempting to dismiss these developments as yet another inconsequential dispute about the legality of VoIP. After all, it’s an issue rumbled on for the past 15 years across in Africa. However, there are two factors that will make this a make or break year:
— Three applications, Skype, WhatApp and Viber, are growing quickly in popularity right across the continent. When I was in Mali, one of Africa’s poorest countries, last year, 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 has a smartphone, the increasing use of IP services is not just likely but guaranteed.
— Some of the larger international mobile operators (including one of the key ones in Morocco) have been conspiring to campaign to undermine the success of “over the top” providers such as WhatsApp and Skype. Their aim is to block OTT services and then provide premium data services to access them. The problem for the operators is that not all of them agree with this stance. For example, Tigo recently boasted that it has a million Swahili users on Facebook.
What is at issue here is the way data is sold and used — both at a retail and wholesale (peering) level. It could completely change the nature of the industry. Blocking 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. What are needed are unified licences rather than technology specific ones. Licences must not discriminate against the use of IP-based services.
- Russell Southwood is head of Balancing Act Africa