Report notes “opportunity” for VoIP regulatory change in MENA region

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Restrictions around VPN and VoIP services in the MENA region could be re-examined following the release of a report by Dubai Future Foundation (DFF).

Titled Life after COVID-19: Telecommunications, the foundation assessed the region’s infrastructure capabilities, government and private sector support initiatives, alongside the impact of existing regulations around VPN connections and VoIP services.

Officially a department of the UAE government, DFF’s report stopped short of criticising existing regulations. These have seen services such as Whatsapp, Facetime, Skype and Zoom blocked for local users in various capacities for more than a decade, while VPNs have not been permitted “in certain circumstances in all MENA countries”.

However, the report highlighted a series of “opportunities”, specifically around infrastructure capabilities, data use and blocked services.

On VPN and VoIP bans, it stated: “This is an opportunity amid the current landscape to assess the potential impact of possible future regulatory changes in the MENA region and determine whether existing infrastructure needs to be upgraded and the market for VPN and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) liberalised.”

The regulations have been criticised in the past – Mark Zuckerberg took aim at the bans in 2016 with regards to FaceTime and WhatsApp calls – but they have been relaxed this year in response to Covid-19.

This March, citizens were granted access to Google Hangouts, Cisco Webex, Avaya Spaces, Blue Jeans, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Zoom and Blackboard. However, WhatsApp video and voice calls, as well as FaceTime and Skype, remained blocked.

While there are unofficial workarounds, some countries have developed their own apps to help citizens access official video call services. But this has not been without issue.

The UAE’s solution, ToTok, came under fire last year when the New York Times reported it had the potential to be used as a government spying tool. Google play and the App Store both removed the app in the days before the story broke.

On the topic of network upgrades, the report stated: “Looking ahead, the report  emphasises that while countries in the Middle East, particularly in the GCC, are largely ‘on track’ with reviewing and adapting current regulatory frameworks, including the introduction of new regulatory frameworks for cloud services or Internet of Things, upgrading networks and rolling out 5G capabilities will be critical to transform and scale operations and to allow remote service provisioning.”

While the report called for infrastructure upgrades– “to not only support increased traffic, but also to drive innovation and encourage the development of local digital platforms” – there were two hints that data rationing could become a short-term solution to current demand spikes in the region.

The report referenced Thierry Breton’s proposal for data rationing during the quarantine period in the EU, before going on to state: “Pressure on broadband services may pose challenges that will soon lead to a legalisation of the size of permitted data if the telecommunications sector is unable to meet the expected growth in the future.”

The Coronavirus pandemic is particularly bad news for Dubai, which hosts Expo 2020 from October this year.

Following in the footsteps of previous World Fairs, which saw the first telephone, television and touchscreen unveiled to the world, it is largely expected that a significant technological innovation will be unveiled during the Dubai edition, if it is goes ahead.

The event has yet to be officially cancelled although the Bureau International des Expositions has agreed to propose a postponement to 2021. Emirates airline is currently trialling one-hour blood tests for passengers; a move that is likely to become central to the UAE’s ability to lift lockdown and travel restrictions.