Confusion reigns over the status of Internet calling apps

A hashtag calling on Egyptians to “Save the Internet” (#انقذوا_الانترنت‬‏) started trending on Twitter on Monday, following anecdotal reports that Egypt is banning services that allow customers to make free or low-cost calls over the Internet.

Officials, including the minister of information technology and the head of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) have dismissed the reports as rumors.

However, widespread reports of service cuts and communications from individual customer service and NTRA representatives leave customers with more questions than answers about the status of Voice over IP (VoIP), the technology that allows voice calls to be made online using applications like WhatsApp or Skype.

Mada Masr reporters had problems making voice calls using 3G voice sim cards on all three of Egypt’s networks. The exact problems were different depending on the app used and the service provider. Some Mobinil users were able to make voice calls on WhatsApp, while others could not. Facebook calls worked on Mobinil and Etisalat, but not Vodafone.

In some cases, such as WhatsApp calls on Vodafone and Mobinil, the call appeared to connect, but audio did not transmit.

Mada Masr readers meanwhile reported problems with additional services, with customers using both Vodafone USB and ADSL modems reporting problems connecting to Skype. In at least one case, that of twitter user @shaymaaziz, Skype was reconnected on Tuesday.

A survey by independent researcher Amr Gharbeia found similar results. Problems were most widespread with Skype: while most DSL subscribers were able to use the service, people reported problems across networks using both voice sim cards and data sim cards (such as those found in USB modems). WhatsApp calls were also reported blocked on voice sim cards from Vodafone and Etisalat. Vodafone is the only DSL provider reported to have blocked Skype, and also the app Vonage.

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Survey by Amr Gharbeia of disrupted services

Carriers have had restrictions on VoIP calls over voice sim cards for months, Gharbeia said. The real news is the spread of the ban to some data sims and some DSL services.

Beyond such informal surveys, little information is available about the present and future status of VoIP in Egypt.

“There might be some ISPs blocking connections already without comment from the NTRA or telecom minister,” said Kareem Atif from the local NGO Support for Information Technology Center. “It might be their own initiative.”

“Companies haven’t dealt openly with the new policy. Neither has the regulator,” Gharbeia added.

Representatives of Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone have told individual customers that VoIP services are blocked due to NTRA regulations.

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Vodafone tweet

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Etisalat tweet

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Mobinil tweet

screenshot Whatapp Mobinil courtesy Mahmoud Banhawy.jpg

Whatsapp message

Adding to the confusion, a call published Monday by news site dotmsr.com purportedly presents a NTRA representative as saying that Internet-based calling has been blocked following a decision by the head of the NTRA.

Later on Monday, the NTRA released a statement denying “rumors” that it had instructed telecom companies to block VoIP calls.

In a statement to television network MBC Masr late Monday, Egypt’s communications and information technology minister also denied reports that VoIP services have been blocked in Egypt.

Then, on Tuesday, Mustafa Abdel Wahid, acting NTRA head told dotmsr that the agency is studying ways to regulate VoIP services.

VoIP’s uncertain status

Egyptian law criminalizes any international calls that bypass the official telecommunications system, explained Mahmoud al-Banhawy, a digital freedoms officer at the Support for Information Technology Center. Even calls made via mobile phone operators are routed through Telecom Egypt’s infrastructure, with the firm taking a cut of the fees.

Article 21 of the 2003 Telecommunications Law prohibits the operation or establishment of telecom services or “bypassing” of international calls without a license from the NTRA.

Article 72 of the same act sets out penalties for violations. Unlicensed telecom operators can face prison terms ranging from six months to five years and fines of up to half a million pounds. In addition, those found to be “bypassing international calls by any means whatsoever” can have their equipment confiscated and be required to pay “suitable compensation.”

This broadly worded law was written before VoIP technology became a mass-market phenomenon, and officials have since given mixed messages about whether the technology is legal in Egypt.

In 2010, a Vodafone spokesperson told reporters that the NTRA would enforce a ban on VoIP use via mobile connections, although it would continue to tolerate the use of services like Skype via fixed-line Internet.

Rumors of a ban surfaced again in June 2013, when the head of the NTRA said it was considering banning popular apps like WhatsApp and Viber for security and economic reasons. Soon after, the communications minister denied any plans to ban the apps.

Meanwhile, companies that use VoIP to operate call centers — a sector the government is keen to encourage — are “completely excluded” from any bans on the technology, Gharbeia said.

Confusion over the status of voice-calling apps is compounded by the general instability of telecom services in Egypt. With frequent service outages, it can be hard to determine whether a problem is caused by an official decision or a technical glitch.

Take, for example, Mada Masr’s experience with WhatApp calls that connect but do not transmit audio. This could be a simple glitch in the service. Or, it could indicate that service providers are blocking signals that look like VoIP, said Gharbeia. A deep packet inspector — essentially a big computer that sifts through all network traffic can identify and block and traffic that looks like VoIP.

International service providers also occasionally play a role in the confusion. On September 21, Egyptians reported problems connecting to Skype, prompting widespread social media chatter about a ban on the service. The problem turned out to be a technical glitch affecting Skype users worldwide.

Why ban VoIP

For the most part however, experts believe the primary motivation for regulating international calls is financial. International calls are a lucrative niche in a sector that is struggling to maintain profitability.

If all of Egypt’s internet providers block VoIP, the only way to call outside of the country will be via Telecom Egypt’s infrastructure, Gharbeia said.

“In Egypt, I believe it’s only about how to charge people for these services,” added Atif, who pointed out that blockages have focused on the most popular services, such as WhatsApp, rather than more obscure voice calling apps, or other services such as Tor that could potentially pose a greater security risk.

If Egypt does impose a ban, it won’t be alone. Other Middle Eastern countries including Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are among the handful of countries worldwide that restrict or completely ban the technology.

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