Mobile messaging app WhatsApp has started offering free VoIP calls to UAE users (and those in the rest of the world) as the button to the most eagerly awaited WhatsApp functionality was flipped on for some in the country earlier this week.
However, after a few hours during which UAE users could jump on to the voice calling bandwagon, UAE telecom operators apparently started scrambling the service for the simple reason that VoIP services can be offered in the UAE only by licensed providers, in effect Etisalat and Du.
According to a source in Etisalat, the UAE telecom operator started blocking WhatsApp voice calls over mobile phone networks from Monday even as some users reported they could still make and receive such calls.
The Etisalat source, who chose to remain anonymous, explained the scrambling has been activated but may take a few days to percolate down to all UAE subscribers.
However, for the lucky few who have already managed to have the functionality activated, the WhatsApp voice calling service may still work over Wi-Fi even as its quality will remain doubtful.
On the other hand, subscribers of Du who managed to download the functionality maintain that they have had no service disruption so far, suggesting that UAE subscribers on the Du platform may have the functionality for a few days more as and when the operator decides to scramble the service.
“VoIP services are still a prerogative of the licensed providers who reserve the right to provide such services through their networks. Companies wishing to offer such services must co-ordinate with the licensed telecom providers in the UAE,” the TRA said on Monday.
WhatsApp has still not made any official announcement or confirmation regarding the feature – here in the UAE or elsewhere.
Read: Free WhatsApp voice calling in UAE: Now, just one call needed to activate
Even after downloading the latest version of the app, the voice call feature does not get activated until one receives an ‘invitation call’ by a person who already has the functionality.
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.”
Read: Free voice calls on WhatsApp: UAE impact?
While Skype’s text messaging is allowed in the country, its VoIP calls remain encrypted and barred. The TRA added in its statement that “this policy has not been amended” as a clarification to rumours that Skype VoIP calls were being made legal.
“As to what the licensees have done in unblocking Skype’s website in the UAE, this action does not change the position of the TRA or amend the policy as this service is considered a Regulated Activity, therefore, it must be provided by a licensee.
“Should the service be provided through a partnership with a third party, both licensees must seek approval to provide such service after fulfilling the regulatory and technical requirements of the TRA, which has not happened in the case of Skype. VoIP services through Skype are still unauthorised,” TRA said.
It should be added that the same coordination apparently hasn’t happened in the case of WhatsApp too, and the app’s free voice call service is now under the scanner.
The TRA has, time and again, clarified the UAE’s VoIP policy, which it has often explained is that it remains restricted to licensed operators.
“We have recently seen local newspapers and social networks publishing news with regards to the ‘Viber’ service being blocked in the UAE. We would like to clarify that the service was never licensed in the UAE,” the TRA said in a statement in September 2014, when media speculation about the unscrambling of that service here in the country gained traction.
“Moreover, the VOIP regulatory policy has only licensed ‘etisalat’ and ‘du’ (the licensees) to provide telecommunication services in the UAE, including VoIP services. This policy still exists and has not been amended,” the TRA then added.