It's good to talk (or it used to be)

If expat rumour and recent press reports are to be believed, the UAE’s telco Etisalat has recently managed to block all VoIP traffic - both in the form of PC to landline and PC to PC calls. As we await comment on this alleged development from Etisalat (and the UAE’s regulator, the TRA), my team has been busy separating fact from fiction - checking out which VoIP apps and chat clients work, and which don’t.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  September 13, 2006

|~||~||~|Arguably the biggest bugbear for Etisalat in terms of recent lost phone revenue has been Skype – the globally popular consumer VoIP client that allows text chat, PC to PC calling, and PC to landline calling at dirt cheap rates (via pre-paid ‘SkypeOut’ credit). Skype’s website at, as you might already know, was blocked by Etisalat last year (in keeping, as Etisalat will tell you, with the TRA’s Telecom Law), however many expats have still been able to use the software that they had pre-installed on their machines, whilst using ‘unblocked’ internet access at Free Zone locations to visit the Skype site and buy SkypeOut credit. So does Skype work now? Here’s how we approached it: our testing methodology was to try the service - for the sake of this feature only - both at a ‘normal’ location. In other words, one at which sites with content 'inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values' of the UAE are currently blocked by Etisalat, and also based at The Greens in Dubai, where internet access is provided, ‘unblocked’, by TECOM - a.k.a. DIC Telecom’s free zone ISP). We used this method to test each of the solutions below. Skype’s PC-to-PC calling can, at present, best be described as ‘variable in quality, verging on unusable’. Incoming and outgoing calls at both Dubai locations connected well enough, but were immediately hit by varying amounts of delay. However, and crucially, neither call lasted longer than three or four minutes – these minutes mainly being filled by both parties shouting “What? When? Can you hear me?” - before the connection was terminated (“Did you hang up? No, it wasn’t me!”). Almost as though something or someone were assessing the call activity and then chopping it off mid-flow. Recalling was permitted, but call quality remained dire and call durations similarly short. As for Skype’s SkypeOut (PC to landline) service, this appears to now be completely defunct, both when calling from outside and inside Free Zone locations. Most frustratingly for expats that might have Skype software and SkypeOut phone credit, calls to landlines do actually ring at the other end, in fact if they’re in, recipients will be heard picking up the phone and repeatedly hollering “Hello? Hello”. However voice traffic from the UAE to them (i.e. you shouting “Hello! It’s me!”) will not be heard at all, and sure enough they’ll soon hang up. Moving on from Skype, Microsoft’s ‘MSN Messenger’ is the most popular application in terms of its number of users worldwide. Like all the apps here, its text-based instant messaging function still works fine, but we couldn’t get its PC to PC calls to work, whoever we called and whatever our, and their, location. When making a call - by right-clicking a Messenger contact and choosing ‘Start a voice conversation’ – the recipient receives MSN’s text invite to the call, as per usual, but after clicking ‘Accept’ such calls simply never connect. Free Zone or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter, MSN’s PC to PC calling appears to be dead in the water. However, one anomaly we discovered is that if overseas friends invite you into a ‘Video conversation’ – for which you’ll obviously both new webcams set-up – this currently runs okay and of course includes audio too. On then next to the second most popular chat program, Yahoo! Chat. Any good news here? Nope, not a jot. We couldn’t get PC to PC calls working, from and to any location, nor did Yahoo’s recently launched PC to landline (‘Yahoo Phone Out’) service work. Calls get as far as the ‘connecting’ stage, but like Messenger’s then grind to a halt. An interesting find however was that one PC to PC chat client does at present still work. It’s basic, currently only available in beta (or trial) form, and it’s associated with an internet search engine. And that’s all I’m saying… Having talked with a lot of internet users – predominantly expats – over the last couple of weeks here, it’s unsurprising really that what seems to be the much tighter enforcement of the Telecom Law’s VoIP restrictions has already caused serious consternation (various angry comments and chat threads online, plus a national newspaper petition with thousands of signatures to date certainly seem to support this claim). But that said, consumer VoIP is not just about not being able to call overseas friends and family on the weekend for next to nothing. Other groups are also users: * Etisalat’s internet arm, eCompany, promotes itself as a gamer-friendly organisation, but as increasing numbers of gamers look to move online (keeping in sync with what is a burgeoning consumer trend), these users will only real gain the most from this form of fun if they can chat to gamers as they play. And what happens if and when Microsoft’s Xbox 360 arrives in the Middle East? This machine is designed largely with hardcore online gaming in mind. Will it sell here then? Will Mr. Gates & Co. even bother to launch it? * Last but far from least, another issue that shouldn’t be overlooked concerns the issue of the UAE’s future business growth, particularly in the small and medium sized business (SMB) space. If the choice for a new Middle East business is either to come here, where its phone bills could arguably be high, or head for a market or country which enjoys a wider range of calling options - including low-cost VoIP - then it could be that such firms simply ‘just say no’ to Dubai and the other Emirates and head instead to Bahrain or Jordan. And what about businesses already here? I’ve also chatted with several owners who are based in Dubai’s free zones and moved into them primarily because internet services were so flexible. Will they stay? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what the TRA and Etisalat have to say about all this. As soon as I receive full, official comment, you can expect a news story on Will the TRA stick to its recent line – quoted in a national UAE newspaper - that VoIP is a ‘national security’ issue? Will Etisalat roll out once more its line of ‘We’re doing as we’re told by the TRA?’ Who knows? Hopefully soon we will. Like everyone else, me and my editorial team only have so many hours in each day, so if we’ve missed something and you have information about other VoIP/chat applications that may or may not be working still, be sure to e-mail me. Just use Are you outside the UAE? Well don’t just sit there fuming about how this piece is so Emirates-focussed; get in touch and let me know the status of consumer VoIP where you are (using the e-mail address above). ||**||

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