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Telecoms triumph in VoIP stand-off

Published:Wednesday | December 3, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Avia Collinder, Business Reporter

The Jamaican Government has signaled that it is preparing to end the free ride for providers of internet calling and data services, known as Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), some of whom have refused to enter into licensing agreement with telecoms on whose networks their services terminate.

Phillip Paulwell, the Minister of Science Technology Energy and Mining, told a forum in Kingston on Tuesday that regulations for VoIP services were currently being drafted and that the government would be going after tax revenue from service providers.

"The Ministry for Finance and Planning needs to collect revenue," the minister declared.

He said, however, that voice would be singled out for special treatment.

"We are hoping to encourage Jamaican programmers," he said, while noting that a "distinction" will be made regarding "pure voice" services.

The move to police internet calling services appears on the face of it to hand a victory to Digicel and LIME, which have been trying to force services like Viber into contractual arrangements, amid complaints that the service providers are adding traffic their networks without paying for its usage.

Attempts at blocking the unlicensed VoIP providers has not gone well, leading to customer backlash against the telecoms.

Still Digicel Group - which has been the most vocal at lambasting the services, calling them 'parasitic', and has led a Caribbean lobby alongside LIME against VoIPs -appeared cautious on Tuesday about seeing the announcement as a win.

Attributed to Digicel:

"The dynamism of the telecommunications industry requires responsive policymakers. So, while we were not aware of the regulations mentioned by the Minister, we do welcome the proactive response to the issues related to VoIP calls," said Digicel Jamaica via email.

LIME's parent company was more willing to celebrate the development, saying that while it awaits a draft of the regulations to "see how best we can assist in framing it", it also sees the announcement as an important step to align oversight to the service "with the new digital age".

"Cable and Wireless Communications welcomes Minister Paulwell's pronouncement today in relation to permitting charges for making calls using Voice over Internet Protocol," said the London-based telecoms.

"We have long maintained that VoIP operators have been utilising the network of telecoms providers without any commensurate compensation for this service. In doing so, they are also depriving the government of tax revenue."

Jamaican programmers and tech entrepreneurs, as well as some in the academic field, will likely view it as a setback, having argued since mid-year that the VoIP services have opened up communications placed groups in easier reach of target markets.

Digicel has argued in the past that unlicensed services like Viber and Nimbuzz put pressure on its bandwidth. But opponents of the blockade have countered with a net neutrality argument, saying VoIP services ought to be treated as part of the data package paid for by broadband subscribers.

Tech-preneurs also say the blockade on free VoIP providers stifles innovation in a sector where start-ups have limited access to capital.

Paulwell's announcement of a legislative solution follows a review of the telecoms' case in August.

Regarding other updates on developments in the ICT sector, the minister said both mobile and fixed line number portability will be introduced as of May 31, 2015.

"The chief parliamentary counsel has finalised all regulations dealing with portability. We have gazetted all the rules.The companies which are not ready will feel the full brunt of the law," he said.

Paulwell later clarified that the penalty for non-compliance was the revocation of operating licenses.

For all breaches of the law, he said, notice will be given of the need for correction and where there is failure to comply, the telecoms provider's license will be revoked.

Mandatory Use

Meantime, the mandatory use of the local Internet exchange point (IXP) by providers will become mandatory as of January 1. Internet traffic is currently routed through the United States, which Paulwell said was "costly and cumbersome".

The regulations to create a single regulator for ICT, which will assume the elements of communication oversight currently split among the Office of Utilities Regulation, Spectrum Authority, Fair Trading Commission and the Broadcasting Commission, will also be drafted by January.

"Currently, we are completing the drafting instructions for a new ICT law. By the second week in January we will have, therefore, a new set of proposals ready for Cabinet," said the minister.

"There are pockets of resistance, but nothing can stop it in the long run," he said.

Speaking broadly about Internet access, Paulwell said the pricing of the service remained an area of concern for the Government.

He said his ministry would continue to draw on the Universal Access Fund to provide free community access, "until the prices come down".

The fund, which is seeded by a cess on overseas companies for telephone calls terminating in Jamaica, currently stands at $12 billion, he said.