Recently, disputes erupted in Gambia and the UAE over the legality of VoIP, and legislators have taken actions to restrict or remove VoIP access countrywide. The actions of these countries’ governments bring to light some interesting questions about the status of VoIP, and how it should be handled across national and international boundaries.
Gambia has removed VoIP because legislators feel that private VoIP service operators are taking away business from traditional analog providers by offering Gambian customers free and cheap national and international calling through Internet cafés. Gambian officials hold that it is something like a patriotic duty for Gambians to use Gambian-run and owned telecom services to encourage financial growth in the country.
Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have also banned VoIP service, but the reasons for these bans vary. Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have stated that banning VoIP protects national security, as well as the business interests of local providers. Meanwhile, the governments of the UAE and France have voiced concerns about the role played by VoIP in their countries for security reasons.
In the US, legislators are trying to solve the problem of how to classify and regulate VoIP. The main issue in the US is whether or not VoIP technology falls under the telecom service category like other phone services, or if it falls under the information service category like the Internet. The US government has palced more telecom service regulations onto VoIP providers in recent years, and intends to add more. The newest regulations will include:
- Regulations to prevent monopolies from forming. One of the reasons that the government regulates phone service in the first place is to prevent business monopolies that inflate prices for users. With regulations, larger VoIP providers could not corner the VoIP market completely.
- Regulations to ensure fair and equal treatment of all customers. This includes offering phone service to low-income areas, and guaranteeing protection against discriminatory measures.
- Regulations to guarantee customer access to 911 and other emergency services.
- Regulations that subject VoIP providers to the same wiretapping laws as traditional providers face.
These countries that are challenging the legality of VoIP are facing the same questions that US legislators are facing, but they are reaching vastly different conclusions. The questions boil down to a few simple points:
- Should VoIP be regulated as a telecom service and as such, should it be subject to wiretapping security laws, telecom taxes, and national fees?
- What is the best way to handle VoIP providers that provide service to an international clientele?
- How can foreign nations benefit from the service of a VoIP provider that is based out of a different country? How can both nations benefit economically?
Until we have decided how VoIP should be regulated at home, it will be very difficult to determine how it should be regulated in other countries. If VoIP providers are not defined as telecom providers in the US and so are not subject to the same security laws as other telecoms, it will be difficult to do as French officials were asking and have providers declare themselves telecom services so that they will be subject to the same wiretapping security laws as other French telecoms.
If VoIP providers are prevented from providing service in other countries because of such legal matters, it will become difficult for residents of those countries to use VoIP service, which will mean they are deprived of a cheap and reliable communication option that is available to much of the rest of the world.
Thus, it may become a matter of great importance if a whole country is prevented from using a service because it is offered by a foreign provider. VoIP is a great service and can be greatly beneficial when providers need to offer phone service to a large group of people at a low cost but with high reliability. It can greatly improve citizens’ access to national and international resources which can help people improve their ways of life and contentment. Thus, it is of greatest significance that legislators in every country figure out a good way to regulate VoIP service.
Rachel Greenberg is site editor of My VoIP Provider.