Caribbean mobile provider Digicel has effectively barred users from accessing popular "free calls" applications Viber, Tango and Nimbuzz.Digicel has blocked free voice calling applications that utilise the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) on its service.In an e-mail exchange with the Sunday Guardian, Digicel's comunications manager Penny Gomez confirmed the ban.
"Unlicensed VoIP operators like Viber and Nimbuzz use telecoms networks to deliver their services, but they do not pay any money for the privilege."This unauthorised activity puts enormous pressures on bandwidth–which means customers' data usage experience is negatively impacted as a result," she said."As such, Digicel has been forced to take firm action to prevent this parasitic activity."Gomez said VoIP services by their nature are network intensive and given priority in terms of delivery across the network.
"Which in turn means that other customers' browsing will be impacted. Digicel uses a separate network for voice so that quality on our 4G network is not impacted by our own voice service," she said.She said while Digicel "invested millions in its network and business," unlicensed VoIP reaped the benefits with no capital investment."The situation is untenable on a medium- to long-term basis and so we are taking a stand," she said.
Gomez said while it was "unfortunate" that Digicel was forced to take this step, the VoIP providers should pay "a fair price for the services that they are currently taking from us for free."She did not disclose how much money Digicel lost as a result of the free services."Once an agreement is in place, then Digicel will have no hesitation in allowing customers to once again use their services," she said.
In a release on social media, Digicel repeated the statement.The company also likened the free service to a shopper taking goods for free."Just as a consumer would not expect to go to a supermarket and take the goods off the shelves for free, so the VoIP operators must be forced to pay their dues so that our customers can feel the benefits of our investments," the company said.
Viber founder to challenge move
The Sunday Guardian contacted Viber founder and chief executive officer Talmon Marco, on Twitter, informing him of the ban and asking "What is triggering these developments?"Marco replied, "You mean, why are they doing this?"The Sunday Guardian replied, "Yes. Is Digicel expecting payments for their infrastructure?" To which Marco replied, "I believe Digicel is already paid for the use of its infrastructure–by its customers."
When asked if he intends to bypass any security bans Digicel may put in place, Marco said, "If they (security bans) exist, yes. They will be bypassed automatically in a day or two." Digicel has already blocked its customers from accessing the applications in Haiti and Jamaica, before imposing the ban in T&T.On July 2, the Jamaican Gleaner reported Marco as saying that Viber "will soon be up and running, notwithstanding efforts by Digicel and Lime to derail it."
In a series of Twitter exchanges with Jamaican Gleaner reporter Richard Browne over the past two days, Marco seemed confident that Viber would be able to bypass the software block.Marco tweeted then that "the Viber system should finish bypassing this block in the next few hours. Users may want to rethink their choice of carrier," he tweeted.One day later, he asked, "Is it working now?"Sunday Guardian understands that in Jamaica, Digicel's block has not been bypassed by any of the free calling applications.
In a media release yesterday, majority state-owned provider Telecommunications Services of T&T and its mobile arm Bmobile said it "declined from offering any comment on Digicel's decision to block VoIP service providers."BMobile said it should be noted that VoIP was an inescapable feature of modern telecommunications.
"BMobile's policy on the matter as far as use of VoIP on its mobile network is concerned is that we provide customers with a conduit to voice and data services. Customers pay us a subscription fee for this access and once customers have bought data services from bMobile, customers determine how they wish to use their data," communications manager Graeme Suite said.
"VoIP essentially is data on the mobile network much like e-mail, YouTube, social media or downloading apps and games. Each local provider must therefore decide, based on what it knows of the capabilities of its network, how to treat with customers using VoIP," he said.
TATT: It's a retrograde step
Chairman of the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (Tatt), Selby Wilson, yesterday described the block as a "retrograde step.""That is where the technology is going," Wilson said, in a telephone interview yesterday.
Wilson said free talk applications like Viber and Tango were described within the industry as "over-the-top" services and were provided by organisations that do not have their own infrastructure and would often use the existing strutures built by a country's service provider. This is the case with Digicel and the VoIP application owners."It is unfortunate that Digicel took the decision to block them, but my understanding is that the block is a negotiation tool to say 'if you want to use the service come and talk with us,'" he said.
Wilson said it was also unfortunate that the country's legislation did not prevent Digicel from these manoeuvres even though organisations such as Viber and Tango were using the local infrastructure without paying for it."There is no policy or legislation, no legal basis for blocking the service," he said.He said Digicel did not inform or discuss the move with Tatt."I believe they should have, if only out of courtesy," he said.
Following the imposition of the ban, Wilson said Tatt would engage Digicel in dialogue to better understand the reason for the block.