Currently, during a protracted period of interconnectedness and globalisation, many businesses and frequent travellers are accustomed to using voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services, such as Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Snapchat and Viber, when making international calls. In the UAE, such services are not currently available.

This restriction has been put in place by the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which governs and oversees the sector. The TRA forbids and blocks unlicensed VoIP operators.

However in a country where a large majority of the inhabitants are from overseas, and ICT is also advocated as a major engine of growth, there is considerable pressure to ease this restriction. In Dubai, this is particularly the case, with an approximate 90% expat population out of a total of 3.19m residents, according to the Dubai Statistics Centre. Calling home for extended periods of time can be expensive, as can the cost of doing business over the phone with international clients and customers.

With regulators, government and the emirate’s two telecoms operators all conscious of this, 2017 saw a partial easing of the sector’s restrictions, with the TRA subsequently approving licences for two VoIP-based apps, BOTIM and C’Me.

Dual Concerns

The TRA’s policy on VoIP services is outlined in a 2009 regulatory policy statement. This acknowledges that such services may provide “some short-term advantages to consumers”, yet adds that if such services are allowed “on an unregulated basis at too early a stage in the development of a liberalising regime, they can in fact be counterproductive [with respect to] consumer interests and retard the process of introducing sustainable and meaningful competition”.

Another concern, however, is security, with VoIP services such as WhatsApp using encrypted software, making them difficult for security services to track. Finally the simple issue of competition also looms large. For telecoms operators worldwide, international calls are a major part of the companies’ revenue stream, with the losses incurred to them by the introduction of free VoIP services likely to be major. This in turn might impact their profitability and thus their ability to provide the services they do and invest in new technologies, such as 5G.

Chat Bots

An alternative to these blocked VoIP services is also now being provided by the licensed and regulated chat bots, BOTIM and C’Me.

Available to both Etisalat and du users, pre-paid or post-paid customers that currently have data subscriptions are able to download the apps provided by these services and then subscribe to a plan with their telecoms provider. Both telecoms operators offer unlimited video and voice calls for Dh50 ($13.61) a month, although the calls must be made to a smartphone or mobile that also has the BOTIM or C’Me app. Currently, the app is free to download outside the UAE on Google Play of the App Store. A further plan, for Dh100 ($27.22) per month, allows the service to be accessed over a desktop or laptop computer.

The BOTIM app was developed by TheBot, registered in the US, while C’Me was developed by Technology Services. No figures were available regarding the apps’ popularity, yet promotional campaigns during 2018 have likely boosted numbers, with du, for example, offering several weeks of free services to new BOTIM or C’Me subscribers in August 2018.

Going forward, many residents and businesses will likely continue to press for further liberalisation of the VoIP framework. Microsoft, for example, was in negotiations with the UAE authorities in August 2018 over unblocking Skype. Other regional peers have recently moved to unblock such services, too with Saudi Arabia, for example, scrapping its ban on internet calling applications in September 2017.