Free voice calls on WhatsApp: UAE impact?

Rumours about WhatsApp offering free VOIP calls to its 600 million monthly active users are gaining traction as new leaks point out the inevitability and imminence of the new service.

“The leaked images of the upcoming user interface show that the app has been enabled with other language translations which will be displayed at the time a person receives a call via WhatsApp,” a new report on the popular gaming site The Fuse Joplin says.

If this is indeed true, it will pose a new challenge to not just other such VoIP services like Skype and Viber, but also to telecom network operators across the world.

This could also mean that the service gets curtailed in the UAE, where VoIP services are allowed to only licensed players. Last year, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) announced 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.”

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 www.skype.com 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.

Earlier this year, Facebook Inc. scooped WhatsApp for $19 billion (Dh70bn), and its CEO Jan Koum had confirmed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that the text-based messaging service aims to let users make calls by the second quarter.

However, industry sources point out that compatibility issues with Facebook Messenger has led to a delay in the service.

Various reports now suggest that Facebook is investing a huge amount of its revenue in revamping WhatsApp’s relationship with various service providers and in establishing a better connectivity over the Internet.

WhatsApp which had about 450 million users at the time of Facebook’s takeover in February has now swelled to over 600 million users, with a stated target of connecting “4 to 5 billion people over the next five years”.

The service has been adding about 25 million active users a month since the Facebook acquisition, and with the third quarter of 2014 well and truly underway now, it seems that the service is now ready to roll out VOIP service before the end of this month.

Facebook’s other messaging properties, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, pull in 200 million users a month. In comparison, according to Forrester Research, WhatsApp’s rival messaging service Line has a user base of less than 450 million while Tencent’s WeChat has 355 million subscribers, and Viber and Skype reach 300 million users each.

Tango (200 million), Nimbuzz (150 million) and KakaoTalk (140 million) are other players in this space, according to Forrester.

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