Status of Voip Remains Uncertain in Oman

Eight months have passed since the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) has decided to unblock many of the Voice over IP (VoIP) services widely available on the Internet, but Skype still remains blocked with no official statement clarifying the current status of VoIP in Oman.

VoIP is not technically a banned service in Oman, but the TRA requires any company that wishes to provide such a service in the country to apply for a licence from the TRA and abide by all the rules and regulations of the telecom law. There are some companies which are licensed by the TRA to provide VoIP service in Oman, such as Nawras, which provides a number of dial-in services for making VoIP calls to certain countries.

The TRA had traditionally blocked all forms of VoIP services from being accessed by users of the Internet in Oman. The most famous of these services is Skype. The TRA argues that it will not allow Skype to operate without acquiring a license in Oman to protect many public interests such as the protection of consumers, the support of the employment of Omanis, the collection of tax and the enforcement of the state security requirements.

These justifications cannot be taken seriously because the same arguments can be made against all other forms of online businesses and communication tools, such as Amazon or Gmail, but nothing other than VoIP had been categorically blocked. It is widely believed that the decision to block Skype has been made to protect the financial interests of local ISPs who make a lot of profits by charging their users for international phone calls.

Earlier this year, the TRA ordered telecom companies to unblock certain VoIP services such as Viber, Google Talk, FaceTime, and others, but not Skype. There was no legal change in the regulation of VoIP in Oman, and the TRA has not made any official statement as to why it has chosen to unblock these specific services.

Rumour has it that the TRA is considering removing the technical restrictions for blocking access to VoIP operated by foreign companies and that it is testing the impact of the allowed services before unlocking everything else. However, more than half a year has passed now and an official statement is yet to be seen.

The topic of VoIP regulation has recently come back to the forefront as Microsoft has decided to discontinue its Live Messenger and integrate the chat functionality of it in Skype. Live Messenger is a popular application in Oman and the inability of people to communicate with their work partners, family and friends using Messenger could be an issue to these people.

The TRA needs to make up its mind on the VoIP matter. Many parents now rely on Viber to communicate with their children who are studying abroad. It is also not unlikely for some small and medium enterprises to consider using the currently available VoIP services to facilitate their business operations. Having these services blocked again can easily devastate many.

VPN For Security?

The legal status of VPN in Oman still remains a grey area. The telecommunications law prohibits the use of any method of encryption without acquiring an explicit permission from the government beforehand, but this law has no practical implication because encryption is a fundamental aspect of the Internet. Without it we cannot log into our e-mail accounts, pay our bills online or check our online banking services.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method by which a computer can securely connect using a public connection to a private network located elsewhere. Once a connection is established to the VPN, the administrator of the public connection cannot have any control over what content is delivered through the VPN to the remote computer and cannot monitor or intercept any of that traffic.

VPNs are regularly used by companies to connect their branches to their head office, thus ensuring that their communications remain secure. VPNs are also used by consumers all around the world to ensure that their connections are secure when using untrusted public connections such as those available in cafes, hotels and other public venues.

The authorities in Oman do not like VPNs because using a VPN circumvents all the censorship and regulations imposed over the Internet. If you connect to a VPN using a local ISP such as Omantel or Nawras, you can view any website, even if that website is blocked by the local ISP which you are using to connect to the VPN. Using VPNs also allows users in Oman to connect to blocked services such as Skype.

In 2010, the TRA sought public consultation over draft regulations that would have made VPN totally illegal for private use and would have required establishments to acquire a license from TRA to use VPN for commercial use. These draft regulations never materialised and the feedback the TRA received about them was never published.

While it is understandable that TRA would not be happy to have the public circumvent all the restrictions that it imposes on the Internet by using a VPN, it would be unreasonable for TRA to ban the use of VPN for private use. This is because using VPN in certain situations is fundamental towards ensuring that the user is protected from Web criminals and identity thieves.

It is extremely common for people to log into public networks in cafes and hotels, and using a VPN in these circumstances can be the only guarantee that your connection would not be compromised by the administrators of these networks or by anybody else who manages to take control over that network. Taking such precautions in certain countries where there is a high risk of Internet scams is a serious necessity, and it is not logical to stop consumers from taking such precautionary measures.

Instead of making more futile attempts at censoring the Internet, TRA should accept that this is an impossible task to accomplish. The position of the law in regard to encryption as it stands is pointless. TRA should focus on improving the Internet and providing us with rights that guarantee that our privacy will be protected instead of creating more barriers to connecting with the rest of the world.

Response to the VPN Regulation Public Consultation

I just sent an email with my response to the TRA’s public consultation paper on the upcoming ban of VPN in Oman. I’m basically suggesting that they make a more precise definition for VPN and introduce an exemption for students to use VPN if they have to.

You can read my response here [PDF].

The deadline for responding to the public consultation paper is September 20th, if you have something to say to the TRA this is your chance to do it.

My Website Got Blocked by Omantel

Censored

In Oman, the currently only Internet Service Provider in the country, Omantel, has the ability to block any website it desires, we assume that this is done to censor pornographic websites and websites that attack the current government. We do not know if this is an automated process or one manually managed by actual employees of the company. I am not sure on what legal basis it has this authority to censor website because I do not have access to all the laws from here.

Anyway, sometime last week, I discovered that my website, myITLawyer, got blocked by Omantel making it inaccessible from Oman. I do not know when exactly in got blocked because I have been away from the country since the beginning of this year. Once Omantel blocks a website, there isn’t anything really that you can do about it other than send an email to an account called “admin@omantel.com”. I did that, but instantly the email bounced back indicating that it could not reach a certain recipient.

I decided to make a complaint to the Telecommunication Regulation Authority as it is responsible for receiving complaints against ISPs. Its Consumer Guide specifies that you have to give the operator 15 days to resolve the issue before you make a complaint. During this period, I asked a friend of mine in Oman to call Omantel and tell them (1) to unblock the website, and (2) that their email account has a problem. There is no special line that you can call to solve censorship issues, the help desk person offered no solution other than “to send a message to the specified email account” even though we told him that messages bounce back. After I heard this from my friend I sent another email to that account and the message again bounced back.

When the 15 days passed I sent my complaint to the TRA who responded after one business day saying that they forwarded the complaint to Omantel and that they will look into the issue. A whole week passed, my website remained blocked, and I haven’t heard from anything, I emailed the TRA again this morning, and then responded within hours saying that my website is now unblocked, and now it is. Of course I never heard ANYTHING from Omantel at all during this period.

It took me exactly ONE MONTH to get my website unblocked since the day I sent my first email to Omantel. I expect that it had already been blocked for a month before I discovered it.

Currently, the only way to have your website unblocked if it gets blocked by Omantel is to follow the procedure I followed, if the TRA did not solve my problem my next step was to take legal action against the TRA at the Administrative Court.

I cannot believe how ridiculous this censorship business is. In October last year Omantel blocked Gmail, Blogger, and a number of other Google websites by mistake. Imagine the damage blocking Gmail did to businesses and individuals. My website was blocked for a whole month in which I obviously had to continue paying for hosting. It is unbelievable that Omantel seems to be totally unaccountable and has absolute authority to block and unblock whatever it wishes randomly.

In the age of user generated content attempting to censor the internet is just totally useless. Anyone in Oman RIGHT NOW can use any search engine and find a porn blog in less than 5 minutes, you don’t need to be a computer genius to do it and it is IMPOSSIBLE to censor everything when a new site is created every second.

It is just unbelievable.

Network Operators in Oman Oppose Sim Locking

Oman Sim Lock

In May 2009, the TRA issued a issued a public consultation on the regulatory position on mobile sim locking. The current position in Oman is that sim locking practices are not allowed. The TRA issued a paper asking the public’s opinion on the matter. The TRA’s initial opinion seems to support allowing sim locking as that could improve the mobile market. It feared that this might lock customers into specific networks, but suggests that the solution could avoided through the following:

  1. Creating an obligation on operators to continue to provide connection packages without handsets for those who do not want a bundled connection.
  2. Creating an obligation on operators to inform customers of the contract details.
  3. Create a maximum cap on the lock period that does not exceed one year.
  4. Create an obligation on operators to provide early termination terms.

Surprisingly, all operators who responded to this consultation paper opposed allowing sim locking.

Renna, Oman’s first MVNO, opposes the practice of sim locking because (1) they believe that handsets locks could be easily broken and (2) that smaller players (like Renna) won’t be able to match the prices offered by bigger companies through subsidy.

Nawras opposes sim locking on the grounds that it shift the focus from competing on service price and quality into a competition on handsets. Nawars claims that handset subsidies are usually used in immature markets as a “catalyst to improve the uptake” of mobile services (which is obviously not true because it is the normal practice in mature markets like USA and UK), that it will increase customer acquisition cost, it will make the market less transparent, and that customer choice will “ultimately be restricted by virtue of” the contract commitment period.

Oman Mobile also opposes sim locking, though not as absolutely as Renna and Nawras saying that “Sim Locking implementation in Oman at this stage will not necessarily achieve the main objective of ensuring” customers choice. Oman Mobile is of the opinion that this might delay the introduction of new handsets as that will be in the hands of operators instead of consumers.

On the other hand, all non-corporate respondents seems, including the Oman Association for Consumer Protection, seem to support the initiative and think that it will be in the interest of consumers.

I personally think that introducing sim locking would be in the benefit of consumers. Currently, mobile handsets are very expensive in Oman and the iPhone has not been released in Oman, probably because no mobile operators from Oman approached Apple.

Whether or not the sim lock could be broken is not buy itself a huge problem, the benefit of the lock to the operator is usually in ‘locking the customer’ into the network for the contract period, whether or not the phone gets unlocked the customer will still be under an obligation to pay up his monthly charge. Fear of defaulting customers could be minimized by introducing qualification requirements in a way comparable to the way a bank loan is granted – (even Oman Mobile made that comparison in its response). This could be further minimized by requiring a deposit from new customers that is claimed back within six months.

There is no doubt that the introduction of sim locking will not be in the interest of smaller players like Renna as they will not be able to easily compete against bigger player like Oman Mobile as they will subsidize the prices through mass purchases, but it can also be using as a great marketing technique by acquiring exclusive mobile phone deals (e.g, the iPhone on AT&T).

There is a risk that the market can become way too dependent on phone subsidies in the sense that mobile phone manufacturers could eventually find it hard to sell mobile phones if no network operators wishes to sell that phone, but that can only act as a market force that pushes manufactures to make phones good enough for operators to pick, instead of saturating the market with crappy devices.

You can read all the responses here.