Wifi As a Public Utility

In hope of increasing the Internet penetration in the country, the TRA is currently studying the possibility of introducing a new policy for regulating the use of wifi hotspots in public places that allow the users to freely access the Internet.

We already have more than a few cafes and restaurants that already offer internet for free, some of them, like Starbucks, have deals with Omantel and use sophisticated systems to track and regulate the free use of the guests of the cafe. The purpose of this new policy would be to figure out ways to encourage this sort of activity where businesses and other institutions can find a method by which they offer free wifi to the public while still able being able to make profit from their primary business activity, in the case of cafes for example the idea would be that wifi would be paid off for through the sale of beverages, other businesses models where no actual product is sold could monetize the free use by injecting advertisements on the pages viewed using free wifi so that the provider of the free wifi can still make money even if no incidental product is being sold.

The most interesting part of the policy in consideration is the possibility of having the government step in and help in funding free wifi hotspots in areas where it might not be commercially viable to have a wifi hotspot. This is interesting because it is the first time the government here has started considering the availability of internet as a public utility.

The government provides a number of utilities to the public free of charge on the belief that these utilities are fundamental to help citizens and business get on with their daily lives better. Roads are provided for free to the public because they are fundamental for the operation of society, it is possible for the government to charge us for driving through over the highway (they already do that in certain places like Dubai) but the government chooses not to because the public good in having this utility for free is greater than the financial gain that could be made by charging for it.

While the internet at home might be affordable to many people, the same cannot be said for mobile wireless internet which allows people to connect when they are outside their houses. If free public wifi was available, a person waiting in line for an assistant to help him at the Ministry of Housing would be able to check his mobile phone bill and pay it on his phone using that free wireless connection, another person visiting a public library would be able to do research from his desk on material referred to in the book he read, another person going on an independent trip to one of the forts could read up information on what he is seeing in that fort right through his phone. Businesses will also benefit greatly from the availability of free internet to the public as they can build mobile web applications and offer location based services to these people to help promote the brand of the business or sell more of its products and services.

There are many cities around the world that do provide free wifi as a public utility, it would great for Muscat to be one of these places where the internet is really ubiquitous. It’s good to hear that the government is considering this as another method to help increase the penetration of the internet, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that they do end up doing it for real.


Is it “FaceTime”?

I recently got to use the video chat feature on the iPhone 4 called FaceTime. This feature basically lets you with a press of a button start an internet video chat conversation with any of your contacts who have an iPhone 4 or a have the FaceTime application installed on their Mac computers. The service is currently only available if you are connected to a wireless network and is not available for use directly on the phone’s cellular data service. It is really simple to use, the quality of the video and voice is amazing, and it will surely help people chat with their family and friends all around the world without having to pay for international phone calls, except in Oman – as usual.

That last sentence is not true, at least yet, because even users in Oman can still use it, but we all know that sooner or later FaceTime will be blocked here – just like every other voice over IP service that was ever invented. The current way the regulation works is that providers of VoIP services must be registered in the country in order for them to provide their services here, and of course as Oman is a very small market for big international players, we do not matter for them, or more realistically we do not exist at all on their radar, so nobody would really bother to come here to spend time and money to register. The result of this is that we as consumers have no option but use the local telephone operators who charge outrageously expensive rates for making international calls even to close places such as the UAE or Qatar. Expats in the country think that this is all part of a big a plan done just to take advantage of them as they pay crazy amounts to stay in touch with their families back home, but the truth is even locals need to make international phone calls to stay in touch with members of their family who study abroad, work in another country, or just to communicate with the rest of the world! We are all adversely affected by the fact that VoIP is blocked in Oman.

If it is true that VoIP is regulated this way in order to protect the interests of the telecom operator then that would be such a short-sighted goal. While it is obvious that having VoIP would mean that fewer people would be using regular telephone services, this is a natural aspect of technological development because as new technologies come old industries would have to die in order for all of us to move along. Secondly, the fact that we are not using cellular voice service does not mean that we will not be paying for cellular data services which are needed to use VoIP and any other technologies used to communicate over the internet. These companies should focus on bringing us faster and more versatile methods for using the internet which will gladly pay for instead of forcing us to rely on old expensive services which nobody would use if we had a choice about it.

Instead of focusing on such short-term benefits we have to look at the bigger picture and the myriad of industries that can be built on top of the availability of VoIP. It is ridiculous to think that we can become a ‘knowledge-based economy’ when a primary pillar for communicating knowledge via the internet, voice, is not allowed to be used in the country just because that will be detrimental to the margins of telecom companies.

domain names

Omani Arabic Domain Names Coming in 2011

The TRA announced recently that it has acquired ICANN’s approval to take control over the top level domain name for dot Oman in Arabic and that the procedures for using it will be finalized by the mid of 2011. Previously domain names could only be written using the Latin alphabet and websites with Arabic names had to use transliterations of the title of the website as their address as it is not possible to have the address written in actual Arabic letters. After the new approval of ICANN, it will be possible to have Omani domain names written using the Latin alphabet or the Arabic alphabet, so websites with Arabic content now can have their domain names also in Arabic instead of having it written using the Latin alphabet.

ICANN and those advocating for the use of international domain names believe that enabling users to type the domain names of websites they wish to visit in their native alphabet will help make the internet more accessible to those who do not speak a language that uses the Latin alphabet. I personally find this to be a very naive presumption – it is very unlikely that a person who is technically savvy enough to use a computer and open an internet browser will find typing a domain name in the Latin alphabet a barrier to using the internet. The reality is that most people who are not savvy enough to use the internet effectively usually resort to a search engine such as Google to find any website they want to visit.

On the other hand, I find it amusing that someone would choose to create an address for their website that could only be written in a non-universal language. It is wrong to assume that all Arabic speakers have access to an Arabic keyboard to type down the name of an Arabic website, there are a lot of Arabs living in non-Arab countries who would find it difficult to find an Arabic keyboard, in addition to this, a lot of cutting edge devices coming out these days, such as smart phones and tablets, are capable of reading Arabic text published in unicode, but do not have to capability to type Arabic text, this makes impossible to type down the domain names of these websites on these devices.

The result of the inability of a lot of people to type in Arabic would make it absolutely necessary for those who register an Arabic domain name to also register an English domain name as a backup reference to allow those who do not have access to an Arabic keyboard to access their website, this would consequently require them to spend double the space, time, and money to market both the Arabic and English domain names at the same time.

The only real argument for using Arabic domain names is the principle of choice. People should have the right to have their domain name written in their native language if they want to, if they want to have a restricted domain name that is available only to people who speak the language and have access to a keyboard in that language then they should have the right to do so. Whether or not that is in their best interest is a totally different issue. Having internationalized domain names is not necessary to make the internet more accessible because domain names in themselves are not a necessary part of the internet as websites can be easily accessed through their IP addresses and more easily through internationalized search engines.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.