Free WhatsApp Voice Calls: UAE telecom operator blocks new feature

UAE’s telecom operators have been quick to block the feature, citing regulatory compliance. (Getty Images)

Close on the heels of WhatsApp allowing everyone – including users in the UAE – access to its new VoIP-based free voice calling service, the UAE’s telecom operators have been quick to block the feature, citing regulatory compliance.

The Dubai-based telecom operator du confirmed in a statement to Emirates 24|7 that it has indeed blocked the new feature for its mobile subscribers even as the service continues to work for some on Wi-Fi networks.

“Voice calls through WhatsApp are blocked in compliance with the UAE’s telecommunication regulations that allow VoIP services (including WhatsApp voice) to be provided in the country only by licensed telecom operators,” the du spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed in response to a query by Emirates 24|7.

Etisalat, the older telecom operator in the UAE, wasn’t immediately available for comment but it must be noted that both operators function under the UAE TRA’s guidance, which has maintained that providing such services is solely the licensees’ prerogative.

The use of VoIP services such as Skype, BBM Voice or Viber is illegal in the UAE and telecom operators scramble such services in the country.

In response to news published by local newspapers and social networks regarding Voice over Internet Protocol services in the UAE, the TRA issued a statement last month clarifying the policy about use of VoIP in the UAE.

“VoIP services are still a prerogative of licensed providers who reserve the right to provide such services through their networks,” the TRA noted.

“Companies wishing to offer such services must co-ordinate with the licensed telecom providers in the UAE,” it added.

The UAE’s TRA announced specifically in 2013 that the Telecommunications Law and the TRA’s VoIP regulatory policy “allows only the licensees (i.e. Etisalat and Du) to provide telecommunications services in the UAE including VoIP services.”

Du CEO Osman Sultan said in February this year that while voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) applications like Skype are not blocked, the telecom operators restrict its usage for voice calls to protect their own huge investments made in providing call services to residents.

“The use of VoIP creates an economical issue. Skype is not blocked. Of course we know people use it,” he told 7Days newspaper. “For certain usage of Skype [PC-to-PC], it is allowed. But making phone calls through Skype directly, in principal, is not allowed,” he added.

Sultan notes du has invested billions of dirhams in providing the internet infrastructure that allows people to use VoIP and the telco must be able to get a return on that.

“I owe it to my customers, I owe it to my employers, I owe it to the shareholders and I owe it to the country that the economical equation on which we base all this is a viable one,” he says.

“So more and more we are expanding, in offering these capabilities, but this has to be a progression based on a healthy and viable economical equation.”

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