A case of mixed signals? Blocking VoIP in the Caribbean
A discussion about some Caribbean ISPs recent move to block Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) across the region.
Since Sunday, 29 June, consumers across the Caribbean have been in an uproar over telecoms, especially mobile/cellular providers, blocking applications and services on their networks that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Generally, the term VoIP speaks to technologies that are used to deliver voice communications and multimedia transmissions over Internet Protocol (IP) networks, which is used by the Internet, and includes offerings such as Skype, Google Talk, MagicJack and Viber.
One of the first telcos in the region to recently block VoIP was Digicel, which has blocked VoIP on its networks in Jamaica and Haiti. LIME, the other major mobile/telecoms provider in the region, has also followed suit in Jamaica (Source: The Gleaner). Some of the views the providers have expressed, which may be construed as justification for blocking the technology, include:
- use of VoIP is a form of bypass of its networks
- VoIP puts enormous pressure on its bandwidth
- they are seeking to protect the integrity of its network and protecting their customers’ ability to use the network in a way their customers are accustomed
- VoIP is having a negative impact on data usage overall
- other operators bringing international traffic to its network pay a termination fee, the entities that use VoIP are not paying anything to do it (Sources: Television Jamaica, The Gleaner).
Tech communities across the region, particularly entrepreneurs who are in the trenches, have been quite vocal that the banning of VoIP will stifle innovation. They have also noted that the blocking of certain Internet services is against the principle of net neutrality, an issue that is being widely debated in the United States, and which we at ICT Pulse have written articles about. Some regulators in the region, such as those in the OECS, have declared positions in favour of net neutrality and that providers should refrain from blocking content (Source: Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority). In this article, we examine VoIP blocking by Caribbean telcos and share our own concerns about this latest development.
Going in reverse on the information superhighway
Historically, each telecoms service required its own distinct network (or technology) through which to deliver service, which in turn meant that consumers would need separate interfaces to access each service. For the Internet, even though it was delivered via the same copper lines used for plain old telephone service, customers needed to have a PC and a modem in order to secure a dial-up connection. However, as technology evolved, with regard to the Internet and the devices that can be connected to it, technological convergence has been realised, where a number of seemingly disparate services, such as voice, data and video, can all be carried on the same infrastructure and to a single device.
Thus, the effort by mobile/cellular operators across the region to upgrade their networks to support broadband connections to the Internet has not been in vain. Thanks to technological convergence, consumers can access the Internet via their mobile/cellular phones, through the existing mobile/cellular networks. As a result, the telcos benefit from the increase in the overall functionality, usefulness and value of their networks to consumers, which should also be reflected in their bottom line.
However, this convergence also means that the mobile/cellular providers are not the only ones who can broaden the ranges of services they offer (from traditional voice communications, to include data and video). Opportunities have also opened up for others entities, who may not necessarily be telcos, but who are innovative and are helping consumers to expand their horizons on what might be possible through today’s technology. Hence, is it fair for the telcos to cry foul that others are benefitting, when they themselves are also benefitting?
Is it just about getting paid on both sides?
With regard to the arguments about bypass of their networks that telcos have been presenting, they appear somewhat contradictory, especially since the VoIP communications are actually occurring on their networks. While it might not be solely on the infrastructure that is used for traditional voice calls, nonetheless, it is still their network.
Similarly, the whole issue of paying for the termination of calls is also a traditional voice network construct, which (so far) has not been applied to Internet communication. For traditional telephone services, such as fixed-line and mobile/cellular, the most widely used pricing arrangement is Calling Party Pays (CPP), where the caller pays for a call to a recipient. The rate payable, which tends to be based on usage, would include, among other things, the cost to originate the call on the caller’s network; to transit it across networks; and terminate that call on the recipient’s network. Though not as popular, other arrangements that have been implemented are Receiving Party Pays (RPP), the opposite of CPP, where the recipient is the one paying for calls received, and Bill and Keep (BAK), where effectively there are no interconnection payments between the telcos. Instead, they bill their own customers for the calls made and keep all of the revenue received.
With regard to the Internet, each customer pays his/her Internet Service Provider (ISP) for access to the Internet, which is similar to the BAK arrangement. Hence, depending on how the service is priced, which the ISPs do control, they should be able to make a reasonable return on their investment.
Having said this, it therefore seems somewhat odd that the Caribbean telecos are insisting that they want to receive payment from the remote party for a service transmitted over the Internet, when they are already being paid by the local user. Should they be successful in having international developers ‘pay for the privilege of accessing users on their networks – similar to what it obtains on traditional fixed-line and mobile/cellular networks – will the local recipients still be required to pay as well? Further, call termination arrangement tend to be reciprocal, so are the Caribbean telcos prepared to pay other ISPs for terminating VoIP calls that originate from their networks?
Shouldn’t it be about data anyway?
Based on the views the telcos have expressed, it appears that they would like to categorise calls made using VoIP technology to mobile/cellular devices, similar to those made through their traditional networks. However, for all intents and purposes, VoIP is an Internet service – it cannot work without the Internet. More importantly, the data transmitted and received by each party to a conversation using VoIP is logged against the data cap associated with his/her data plan.
It therefore means that VoIP use consumes data under a subscriber’s data cap, which he/she pays for. Interestingly, an informal survey of the applications and services that consume data on a mobile broadband plan seem to indicate that, typically, the big consumers of data are:
- video streamed to mobile/cellular devices
- uploaded and downloaded images
- social networks and their frequent push notifications
- email communication
- OS-related operations and other background services, and
- web browsers.
In all instances, services that use VoiP were well down the list, which suggests that the data they consume is not significant when compared with all of the other commonly used apps and services on an individual’s device. Moreover, does it truly matter exactly how a customer uses the volume of data allocated under his/her data plan, provided he/she settles his/her bill in full and in a timely fashion?
It is also interesting to note that from all reports, other than what Caribbean telcos have stated, voice by VoIP uses a relatively small amount of bandwidth – between 30 and 100 kbps (Source: Skype). However, the concerns expressed about the bandwidth that VoIP services consume may be more related to the poor quality of service, where in practice Caribbean Internet networks have slow speeds and still limited capacity (or bandwidth). Hence for customers who are paying for 3G, LTE, and even 4G service in the region, they might not be getting anything close to the data speeds specified for those standards, as discussed in EDGE, WiMAX, 3G, 4G: what’s the difference?
A bucket to empty the ocean
In summary, telcos battle against VoIP is not new – it is at least 10 years old. During that time, technology evolved making VoIP easier and even more accessible, and it is likely that newer and easier alternatives will continue to emerge. However, what has not been as evident is the willingness of the telcos to be more proactive in exploring newer business models, based on changes that have been occurring in the industry. Of particular note, the bandwidth needed for machine-to-machine communications (the Internet of Things) and the emerging Internet of Everything promise to pale in comparison to that used for VoIP.
Without a doubt the infrastructure that the telcos provide is critical. However, times have changed. The level of profits that telcos used to realise when they had more control over all of the (limited) services delivered over their networks is not what currently obtains. Though the infrastructure is essential, its actual value is facilitating the delivery of services, data and innovation, and not from the existence of the networks themselves.
image credit: Stuart Miles (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)