ME incumbents face up to VoIP

A conference I recently chaired in Dubai had one clear message - third-party VoIP services are inevitable.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  June 25, 2007

Last week I chaired an inaugural VoIP conference held in Dubai, which brought together incumbent operators, VoIP service providers, alternative operators, technology providers, investors and consultants. The message was simple - the provision of third party VoIP services is inevitable.

It is always edifying to hear frank exchanges between industry participants with respect to developments affecting their businesses, and in this regard Jordan Telecom Group's Tamouh Khauli, head of its e-dimension business, led the way.

He admitted the pain the company had initially suffered as a result of the fall in international traffic over its network as a growing percentage of voice calls were diverted over the web. Khauli explained the incumbent operator's progression from accepting the presence of VoIP technology and the public use of it, to actively incorporating it into its own network evolution, and accepting the trend as opposed to trying to resist it.

Jordan Telecom Group now prides itself as being one of the region's first truly integrated communications providers and has selected IP to play a central role in the development of this strategy.

In 2005 it released its Livebox product, the first VoIP ADSL box in the region targeted primarily at residential subscribers. The launch of the product was in direct competition to web-based VoIP services such as Skype, and Jordan Telecom Group's then chief strategy officer, Luc Savage, was unequivocal in his belief of the need of local players to innovate in order to survive the growth in competition.

"At this point we see VoIP as being an aggregation of the internet and any other application, which can be sound, music, data, or video. Voice is simply another application," Savage commented at the time, adding that while it was aware of Skype, Jordan Telecom could still bring something to the market using the benefits of VoIP.

That strategic view has continued to progress, so much so that earlier in the year the company announced the acquisition of a majority stake in Bahraini alternative provider Lightspeed Communications.

Algeria, Jordan and Bahrain's regulatory environments remain the most developed with respect to the operation of third-party VoIP while Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Qatar are moving strongly in that direction. However, Saudi's Communications and IT Commission believes a measured approach to opening up the market to independent VoIP providers is the best way forward.

"There are 10 authorised VoIP providers in Algeria, but only a few of them are operational," commented Ibrahim Kadi, senior adviser at the CITC. " So I don't believe this is a particularly successful model and I believe they have stopped awarding licences to VoIP-only providers," he added.

The VoIP conference's choice of location in Dubai was a little ironic given that the UAE regulator continues to outlaw the provision of third-party VoIP services in the country, limiting its operation to the country's two licensed operators, Etisalat and du.

In fact what was scheduled to be a regulatory panel discussion consisting of UAE Telecom Regulatory Authority's Mohammed Gheyath, the Arab Regulators' Network's Ahmed Bougadoum, and the CITC's Kadi, suffered the disappointment of the last-minute withdrawal of the two former regulatory representatives, leaving only Kadi to detail the Saudi regulator's position on the third-party offer of VoIP.

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