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Digicel mulls banning Viber, other 'unlicensed' VoIP services in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | June 29, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Richard Browne, Business Reporter

Jamaican users of free voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services such as Viber may soon be denied access via the Digicel network if recent developments in Haiti are anything to go by.

As of June 17, Digicel Haiti, the largest telecommunications company in the French-speaking country, has taken a hard stand against "unlicensed" but popular VoIP applications by blocking them.

Digicel wants the app service providers to enter into formal business arrangements, in order to traffic their services through its network.

Apart from Viber, the banned applications in Haiti also include Tango, and Nimbuzz. The services allow customers to make free calls or send free text messages to other customers on those services.

VoIP services are "very popular" both in Jamaica and around the world, Dean Smith, president of the Jamaica Computer Society, told Sunday Business.

WhatsApp is the most popular, but Viber is growing in popularity, especially in non-traditional countries, Smith said.

"Unlicensed VoIP operators like Viber and Nimbuzz use telecoms networks to deliver their services, but they do not pay any money for the privilege," Antonia Graham, head of communications for the Digicel Group told Sunday Business.

The unauthorised activity "puts enormous pressures on bandwidth - which means customers' data usage experience is negatively impacted as a result", she said.

"As such, Digicel has been forced to take firm action to prevent this parasitic activity," she said.

Digicel has not ruled out blocking such VoIP services in Jamaica.

"This is currently the case only for Haiti but we are actively considering our options in other countries," Graham said.

"It's important to point out that VoIP services by their nature are network intensive and given priority in terms of delivery across the network - which in turn means that other customers' browsing will be impacted," she said.

Digicel uses a separate network for voice so that quality on its 4G network is not impacted by its own voice service, Graham said.

"Put plainly, we invest millions in our network and our business, and the VoIP providers use and benefit from that with no investment of their own," Graham said.

"The situation is untenable on a medium to long term basis and so we are taking a stand."

It is possible that the restrictions will be lifted, if the services agree to pay up - which would mean no more free calling or texting on those services.

Discussions with the VoIP providers are ongoing and "Digicel is hopeful that these measures will only be temporary and that a commercial relationship can be agreed with them on an individual basis," Graham said.

LIME is also known to be concerned about the effect of VoIP on its network, but did not respond to requests for comment.