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Regulators shun VoIP conference

Representatives of two telecom regulatory bodies stayed away from a conference promoting the benefits of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology.

Representatives of two of the region's major telecom regulatory bodies withdrew at the last minute from a conference held in Dubai today that sought to explore the opportunities for voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology in the Middle East.

Mohammed Gheyath, manager, technical affairs, at the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) and Ahmed Bougadoum, permanent secretary of the Arab Regulators Network were both scheduled to take part in a panel session at the event, VoIP World. Organisers said that no representative from either body would attend, without giving an explanation as to their absence.

While VoIP services are available in most countries around the world, the technology's usage is still heavily proscribed here in the Middle East.

Bahrain and Jordan are currently the most liberalised telecoms markets in the region and have already licensed VoIP services. Regulators in Saudi Arabia and Qatar meanwhile are working to license VoIP, whilst in the UAE and Oman the regulators have only confirmed that they will allow VoIP services to be offered by existing telecoms providers in the future.

Delegates to the conference were told that VoIP's usage is, however, inevitable, with regulators being urged to tackle the issue sooner rather than later.

Chaired by CommsMEA editor Tawanda Chihota, the event featured representatives from a range of regional incumbent operators, new telecoms market entrants, analysts and established VoIP technology companies, such as Vonage.

"Regulators have the economic growth of countries in their hands," said Nezar Jamsheer, the chief operating officer of Etisalcom. "In the UAE, the regulator should tackle access to incumbents' infrastructure before anything else," he added, "as in Bahrain we have suffered through regulator delays on this".

Away from regulators and as far as in-country telco incumbents are concerned, it was suggested today that such organisations should stop seeing VoIP as only a threat and appreciate instead that it does presents very real commercial opportunities.

"VoIP was a major threat to our PSTN business model at first and in the beginning we were in denial and tried to block it," commented Tamouh Khauli, the CEO of e-dimension at Jordan Telecom. "Then came acceptance and then we made VoIP our friend. Now it's really an essential part of our business model."

For incumbents in non-liberalised markets such as the UAE that might be worried about their international call revenues should they bring in VoIP services, Khauli had this to say: "When VoIP was opened up in Jordan, we took a hit on our international call revenues yes, but then we realised that the way to beat them is to join them. We discovered that while it is a price sensitive market, we could concentrate on differentiating ourselves by adding more services rather than simply chopping prices like many of our new competitors."

According to Matthew Rosen, the president and CEO of Fusion Telecommunications International, who also spoke at the conference, the global VoIP market grew 83% in 2005 and doubled in size last year to total almost 40 million users worldwide. This figure is predicted to hit 145 million by 2009 and a massive 267 million residential VoIP subscribers by 2012.

"By 2012, there will be over 17 billion devices connected to the internet," Rosen suggested. "If that's not a market opportunity, I don't know what is."

By embracing VoIP, there are opportunities available to offset the revenue lost from traditional telecoms services," Rosen continued. Citing the upcoming Apple iPhone as an example, Rosen said that VoIP providers - in this region and abroad - must work to, "embrace the full power of convergence. The important of this growth is just too important to ignore. It will lead the communications industry's change, from being telephone focused to application focused; in 2006 as an example, the top three IPTV providers for instance were all telecommunications service providers."