The UAE's federal telecoms regulator has clarified that there is no change in its policy towards Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, following complaints by users that phone and video service Skype had been disrupted.
"The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority clarifies that there is no change in the UAE's Voice over Internet Protocol policy," the regulator said. "TRA reconfirms that any applications or services of this type must comply with the applicable regulatory framework."
TRA's 2015 policy clarification stated that VoIP is a "regulated activity" to be provided by licensed operators and urged companies providing such services to work with regulated service providers.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been wary of allowing access to VoIP services because of security concerns. However, the kingdom lifted its ban on calls made through Skype and Whatsapp in September but said it would continue to monitor VoIP activity.
While the UAE had disallowed call features on messaging platform Whatsapp, social networking site Facebook, as well as gaming app Discord, Skype was the only VoIP service to continue operating. Fears of a ban on Skype, which has 70 million users worldwide emerged in June, when users complained about not being able to make calls. However, the service had since resumed.
Skype users in the UAE have complained over the last week that Microsoft-owned Skype, which allows users to call for free on the internet, bypassing traditional service providers, had considerably slowed.
The slowdown in service coincides with the launch of regulated VoIP apps by the UAE's telecoms operators du and Etisalat, which have both responded to complaints on social media saying that Skype had been "blocked" and referred users to buy their licensed apps.
An Etisalat spokesman said that "unauthorised applications or services that are providing VoIP calling services are not supported in the UAE" and referred users to their internet calling plans that are available for a fee.
Du said in an earlier statement that there "has been no changes in the VoIP policy followed in the UAE" and also encouraged users to adopt its internet calling services.
The telecoms service provider did not comment on whether it had any role in the recent slowdown of service.
UAE telecom operators' concerns over the usage of VoIP is fuelled by declines in their voice and international calling businesses. "Over the past few years, telecoms operators generally have seen their more established business lines of voice calling and text messaging suffer as customers increasingly use Internet-based messaging and calling services instead," said Matthew Reed, telecoms practice leader, Middle East and Africa at intelligence provider Ovum.
"The UAE operators are particularly concerned about the impact on their international calling business."
Ovum forecasts that revenue in the UAE mobile sector will increase from $5.94 billion in 2017, to $6.73 billion in 2022, while mobile voice and SMS revenues will fall over the period, with the decline only mitigated by growth in revenue from non-SMS mobile data.
Meanwhile, a campaign by UAE-based users to urge the TRA to reconsider its policy has attracted more than 1,000 signatures on change.org.
"I already pay for my phone bills, landline bills, internet bills and others. While the point of Skype, Discord, TeamSpeak and others is to easily communicate with others for free, I'm sure there are other people that find these 'unlocked apps' ridiculous and unnecessary," said Mostafa A, who started a campaign called UAE: Stop Blocking VoIP Services on change.org.
Customer Ruchir Purohit said the current ban had been "embarrassing" for international business and would hurt startups.
"We had a Skype meeting with a prospective client and were supposed to close the deal [but] couldn’t. I feel for the start ups," he said.
"On one hand [the UAE] aspires to become [a] hub of technology and innovation and blocks basic communication channels on the other hand."
One petitioner on change.org noted that the ban was "a violation of the free market", while another user, Christine, wrote: "The alternative offered doesn't work. And UAE is better than this." Other users complained about not being able to reach relatives and families during the festive season, saying the new VoIP apps were not affordable for them.
"I am an expat in [the] UAE and my parents are in Sri Lanka...Skype is the only way that we connect with them, since UAE normal phone calls charges are unbearable to us," read a petition by a user named Kanchana.
While Darren, a gaming enthusiast wrote, "I wanna use Discord to play peacefully".
Skype has responded to complaints on social media by saying the matter was out of its hands and urged users to contact their service providers directly.
"The best course of action would be for you to speak to your ISP and ask why they are blocking Skype and request that they unblock our site and services," it said on Saturday.