Carib ministers, telecoms divided on VOIP services
Caribbean telecommunication ministers and service providers Tuesday failed to agree on how best to deal with Voice-over Internet Protocol (VOIP) platforms, such as Viber, with the providers complaining that they were losing a significant amount of money due to illegal practices.
Telecoms, such as the Irish-owned Digicel Group, say VOIP service providers utilise their networks without paying. Access to VOIP services has been blocked in some markets as a result.
Digicel director Patrick James Mara reiterated at a round-table discussion on strategic alliances for sustainable broadband development that "illegal" voice bypass service avoid paying taxes and licences fees that other providers must pay.
The round table is part of the activities for the 30th annual conference of the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organizations (CANTO) underway in Nassau since Monday.
"Put simply, this is an unsustainable situation, one that a number of industry players have been trying to address for some time now, and one that no one has been able to successfully overcome, and one that we are tackling head-on," Mara said.
"Not only are we happy to take it head-on, but a number of operators in the region will be tackling this issue in the coming months, because this is not something that can be sustained."
He compared the situation to drilling an oil well, "and some hobo came along and say I am going to pipe into this tank, take your oil, pay you no money, because I have got customers that I want to sell that oil".
Official estimates are that regionally, losses due to unlicensed VOIP services is in the vicinity of US$500 million, and that Caribbean governments stand to lose as much as US$150 million.
"You build a lot of schools, hospitals, health services and provide all kinds of social services for your communities for US$150 million. These operators are making no contribution to your communities, to your government, to your tax requirements in your communities," Mara said.
"This is a matter that regulators are going to have to take seriously."
The only people making money from the VOIP services are venture capitalists, he adds.
But Ambrose George, Dominica's telecommunications minister, said the issue of net neutrality, in which the internet is seen as a whole of information sharing using varying types of data transmission "poses another interesting viewpoint".
"Internet traffic is simply data, whether it is telephony, e-fax, text, audio, etc. Hence, there should not be any form of discrimination of data based on its origin or type or nature," he told the conference.
Digicel executive and CANTO director Julian Wilkings said telecommunication providers do not have issues with companies like WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, but object to platforms such as Viber using their data services without a licence.
"From Digicel's position, where telecoms providers are competing in the same market, we would like the same rules, and legislation must be applied in order to keep a level playing field," Wilkings said.
St Lucia's Science and Technology, Information and Broadcasting Minister, Dr James Fletcher, said telecommunications Providers are being affected in much the same way as stores in Castries given that more St Lucians are shopping online and taking advantage of the country's duty-free barrels provision at Christmas.
"Unfortunately, VOIP has done the same thing for the service providers. There is a demand there that is not being met. And, like my colleague from Jamaica, I would be a lot happier if it were a Caribbean VOIP solution. But the solution cannot be to get rid of VOIP because there is a very significant demand that these people are providing," he said.
Jamaica's Minister of Technology, Phillip Paulwell, said he believes that there is a sensible way out of the situation, "recognising that the greater goal is to get our people to have access to data services and we have distinguished that from some of the other services that are plain old telephone services".
Fletcher said that in the same way that ministries of agriculture across the Caribbean encourage persons to buy local produce, there must be a local solution to the VOIP issue.
"... People are not just using those VOIPs for frivolous matters. They are using them to communicate with family members who, before, they could not communicate with; businesses are using them," Fletcher said.
Caribbean nationals want to be able to call their relatives overseas "and not pay an arm and a leg, to the point that they have to schedule these calls once every two months. That is what they are used to, so to tell them that they cannot use Skype, they cannot use Vonage, they cannot use MagicJack and not provide them with an alternative is really asking a government, which is made up of politicians, to commit suicide," said Fletcher.