The flap about VOIP

BitDepth#944 for July 08

The Open Internet is under threat everywhere. Digicel’s decision to block some VOIP services brings that issue home to T&T. Illustration by BigStock.
The Open Internet is under threat everywhere. Digicel’s decision to block some VOIP services brings that issue home to T&T. Illustration by BigStock.

Digicel Trinidad and Tobago quietly dropped a bomb on Saturday morning, with a notice on its website that “effective immediately, unlicensed VOIP services are blocked on its network.”

The company named four specific services which had, in fact, been blocked hours before, Tango, Viber, Nimbuzz and Fring.

Digicel had moved quickly after instituting the ban in Haiti barely two weeks before, moving on to Jamaica and over the weekend, T&T.

I posed four questions to the company’s, Communications Manager, Penny Gomez in the wake of that announcement, which notably left out more commonplace and well known VOIP software in regular use in this country.

Is the list of services on Digicel’s website conclusive and fulsome or will any “unlicensed” VOIP service be banned as well?

Skype is the most widely used VOIP software in T&T, is the use of that service banned as well?

Does Digicel have an established procedure for a VOIP product to be licensed for use on the network?

Does Digicel have hard numbers or statistics that demonstrate how VOIP products are being used on its networks?

Digicel responded with an expansion of its original statement, noting the following…

• At the moment, all unlicenced phone number-based VoIP services are blocked.

• It is “actively considering the position of all unlicensed VoIP operators in each of its markets along with the nature of the operators.

• ”Viber has an interconnect arrangement with Digicel but “steadfastly refuses to pay these amounts due.”

• Implying that other invoices have been sent, the company called “on these companies to pay the outstanding invoices sent to them.”

The company’s full statement is here:

Viber has since responded to Digicel’s statement bluntly, saying “They are smoking.” An e-mail to Microsoft’s Skype division about licensing on Digicel’s network over the weekend brought no response in time for this column.

The Voice over Internet Protocol allows phone calls to be packaged and transmitted on the Internet. The technology has been in use for more than a decade, but faster Internet backbones have brought dramatic improvements made it a preferred system for transferring call data, even by ISPs. 

Flow’s phone service, for instance, is VOIP based, but like Skype, is considered a second generation VOIP solution, maintaining connectivity with the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Third generation networks like Google Talk and Facebook’s call connections dispense with PSTN connectivity to establish direct domain to domain links using IP only, usually via a web page.

What’s been notable is the lack of general concern about the loss of these specific services and the greater sense that something’s fundamentally wrong with the company’s position.

On the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society’s mailing list, concerns were raised about the technical underpinnings of the claim, with experienced practitioners arguing that VOIP services will claim 20kbps of a user’s connection, far less than a YouTube video and pondering whether an issue of Net Neutrality is arising from the company’s action.

That would bring T&T into alignment with international concerns about businesses and service providers who are seeking to create a fast lane for the Internet, tiering access to services to favour those willing to pay more.

The proposed system would allow businesses to harvest more money but would introduce filtering and balkanisation of protocols to the open Internet.

In taking its action against the VOIP companies, Digicel Trinidad and Tobago has brought the issue home to this country, subtly changing its role from a common carrier to a content gatekeeper, willing to discriminate between the services allowed on its networks.

Opponents to a tiered Internet have created a website to articulate those concerns.

TSTT’s brief comment on the matter seemed to side with Net Neutrality: “Customers pay us a subscription fee for this access and once customers have bought data services from bmobile, customers determine how they wish to use their data.”

A more definitive statement on the matter is still to come from the Telecommunications Authority of T&T, who need to step up from the vaguely disapproving comments of the weekend with a clear statement on this country’s position on net neutrality.