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Mapping VOIPs Service Providers Blockage in the MENA Region

Moroccan Internet users have discovered since Tuesday, January 5th, in the late afternoon, a total blocking of voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) calls, particularly on the Viber, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp applications

cut Morocco’s Voice over IP (VoIP). There has been no official communication on the issue from the Moroccan Telecom operators and the ICT Ministry, leaving users in doubt. It was not until late evening that subscribers realized that a popular online campaign has started to organize on the Web.

It is possible that this shutdown of VoIP is due to terrorist threats, but the apparent reason is rather commercial. Telecom companies have most probably conducted the blockage. What is the reason? Presumably, the income from calls of Maroc Telecom has fallen over the past few years, whiles the price of Internet subscriptions, including 3G, has not changed, causing a huge economic loss for Moroccan telecom operators. 

It is worthwhile to mention that on August 6, 2014, Maroc Telecom was accused of blocking VoIP applications. Maroc Telecom subscribers have reportedly complained about not being able to access VoIP applications, namely Viber, for the last two weeks, prompting speculation that the operator has blocked free VoIP operations yet again. VoIP service was still accessible over Inwi and Meditel’s respective network operators during that time.

Blocking Viber VoIP Access, Same Old Habits 

In 2012, customers of Maroc Telecom suffered over two weeks of losing access to the VoIP application on Viber. Customers of Inwi and Meditel were able to use VoIP on Viber, which led Maroc techzone360.com/topics/tec Telecom customers to suspect that it was their operator that blocked access. Already, Maroc Telecom deceived its customers when it blocked access to Viber and Skype for several days. The operator is being accused of blocking VoIP apps as their high usage level in Morocco is affecting their income and profits.

The increasing utilization by the users of social networking applications that provide the possibility of voice communication and free video communication means that these blockages will cause the loss of vital interest of Moroccans end-users who rely on these technologies in their work and daily dealings.

Tunisian Telecom operators tried to block the usage of VOIPs in 2014, but following the uproar it caused among Tunisian subscribers, the Consumer Defense Organization (ODC) mounted pressure on the National Telecommunications Instance for its silence to make a call to order for the 3 telecom operators. The regulator has indeed notified Orange, Oredoo, and Tunisie Telecom that as per the license granted by the Tunisia state, telecom operators have to respect the “Net neutrality” of service on the network, for all types of connections.

But unlike our neighbor, telecom operators allowed business access to VoIP lines with large postpaid packages. For prepaid, a 3G package would be available for these services (like Youtube, Viber, etc.) called “Over the Top.”
Tunisia is Revamping Rates for 3G While Morocco is Blocking VoIP calls 

In 2008, ATI, the governmental Internet provider in Tunisia that controls all private internet service providers (ISPs), has blocked VoIP overall connections in Tunisia. wirelesstn.blogspot.com/2008/0. Lacking strict legislation and under the pressure from Tunisia Telecom, ATI has prohibited VoIP for use by corporations. But this very innovative and useful technology has been used secretly by most of 90 % of call center business who got communications through digital channels with France.  

In a very strange and unexpected move, ATI has blocked the VoIP ports and stream for all customers using local T1 connections. Only the big companies having used international T1 connection or subscribed to “Divona's Wimax” services still had their VoIP working. In 2008, dozens of small- and medium-sized call centers all over Tunis were incapacitated. They were wondering why ATI would make such a move. Are they trying to make everybody get a much more expensive service or is it just that they still can't control VoIP?  

With the commercial launch of 4G (scheduled for next spring) 2016, tap.info.tn/en/index.php/e  VoIP will eventually become Voice over LTE, or VoLTE, with HD quality. Suddenly, communications will soon be 100% free. Instead of paying for calling minutes (as is now the case), the customer will only pay for data. Therefore, network investment will become even heavier (more coverage, more capacity, better quality of service, etc.).  

LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and isn’t as much a technology as it is the path followed to achieve 4G speeds.  Difference between, 3G, 4G, and LTE can be found here digitaltrends.com/mobile/4

As a result, telecom operators have begun to gradually revise the price of data packages. Note that the sales price per gigabyte (GB) of data on 3G is set by the INT at 2.5 Dinars tax (below which the operator is considered a loser and therefore illegal). But that price is fixed since 2010 when 3G was first launched in Tunisia.

Therefore, operators have asked the regulator to revise the connection price by increasing it to 5-6 dinars per GB to match today's reality (devaluation of the dinar, the high cost of equipment, competition from OTT as Viber, etc.). But the national Telecommunication Instance INT discouraged the transition to this rate without an audit of three telecom operators to calculate the real cost of data and updated pricing. Until the launch of the study, operators, therefore, only have the right to slightly increase the price of their 3G.

Regional Comparison of VoIP Operating Systems in the MENA Region 

VoIP is blocked in UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Egypt, since calling rates in these countries are high. If telecom providers open VoIP calls, they will lose a large revenue stream from calls, not to mention that they cannot tap in on VoIP paid calls. emirates247.com/business/t for example, Free Skype, Viber, WhatsApp calls are blocked within the UAE, although it may be possible for someone in the UAE to call someone outside the UAE.

Arab countries like Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have blocked the use of VoIP, Telecom operators cannot block Facebook Messenger’s VoIP, unlike Viber Skype and WhatsApp. I think the explanation is not only technical. Economically speaking, each country has a different priority about what to block or allow; for example, Egypt and Tunisia, which are both net receivers for international calls, have more interest in blocking illegal VoIP termination than OTTs.  

UAE and the GCC countries, in general, are net senders of international calls, so they don't really care about VoIP termination, but they worry more about OTT (in order to protect the operators income from international calling).Finally, concerning the security issue, maybe some OTT providers are more cooperative in adhering to security requirements than others, such as providing customers’ data when asked for.

OTT Shaping the Future of the Unowned Internet 

Early this year, Internet Society in Egypt has kicked off a series of seminars on the topic of “Shaping the future of the Internet in Egypt” The fourth seminar was held on Tuesday, December 22, 2015 and was titled “Is OTT a Threat or Opportunity.”  

The use of voice over internet protocols (VOIP) such as Skype is now technically illegal in Egypt.The National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) recently blocked access to Skype and other voice chat programs in hopes of boosting state-owned Telecom Egypt’s international calling.

Egypt’s NTRA has yet to decide whether OTT services ought to be regulated. The one exception is Skype, which has been blocked over mobile networks since 2009 due to its detrimental impact on revenues from international calls.

Some argue that such a win-win model does not seem to exist so far. Others see an opportunity in “local” services (e.g. bey2ollak, Taree2y, etc.), as well as in making operators’ APIs application programming interfaces  available to the larger developer community to innovate new services. Also, focusing on consumer behavior is key.

Revenues do not only come from ads, user data is in itself a big source of revenue (e.g. Whatsapp sold for $19 billion). This raises a question about users’ data and what it is exactly that companies can or cannot do with this data.
Policy Recommendations for a Secure Deployment of VOIPs 

Protect telecom sector by keeping it attractive high return of investments for telecom operators to boost services.                        

Abide OTT with laws and local rules of taxes to local economies to reach customers and compete with them without paying the same cost.                                                                                           

Support development through infrastructure, jobs supply, income to governments and social responsibility to provide cheap and high-quality services and freedom of access without monitoring.              

Allow for more competition and local alternatives without violating users rights as much as possible.                                                 

Work with ISPs controlled by the government that are performing blockage of VoIP all over the in the MENA region.                                 

Professional provider of VoIP anti-blocking (hardware & software) should develop Security Solution to bypass VoIP Blockage  including firewalls, IDSes, VPNs, etc. to support the advanced security requirements for VoIP                                                       

More consideration and discussion among stakeholders as it affects not only the telecom Internet sector but also the economy at large.

Revive the practice of inviting stakeholders to take part in discussions around strategic objectives to focus on are the Consumers, Service Providers, and Innovation.                             

Legalize VOIP / OTT operator’s services according to the national context laws and legal ICT regulation.  

List of Acronyms: 

ATI: Tunisia Internet Agency
API: Application Programming Interface
GCC: Gulf Cooperation Council
ICT: Information Communication Technology
ISP: Internet Service Provider
INT: National Telecommunication Instance
IDSes : Instruction Detection System
LTE: Long Term Evolution
OTT: Over the Top
ODC: Consumer Defense Organization
T1: Digital Transmission Service to connect to an Internet Service Provider
NTRA: National Telecommunication Regulation Authority
VOIP: Voice over Internet Protocol
VoLTE: Voice over Long Term Evolution
VPN :Virtual Private Network

Hamza Ben Mehrez: Policy Analyst Lead at IGMENA

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