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Viber, others robbing Jamaica of revenue, Digicel says

Published:Saturday | July 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Gail Moss-Solomon, Guest Columnist

I am writing in response to Gordon Swaby's letter that was published in The Gleaner on July 3, 2014. We thank Mr Swaby for taking the time to voice his concerns and would like to use this forum to clarify some of the issues raised by him.

Digicel has taken a decision to block certain unlicensed VoIP applications, and the list is under continued review. This is because these operators use our data network to deliver voice services - an activity which they are not licensed to do and, as a result, do not pay the requisite fees to carry out.

As you are probably aware, we invest millions in our network and our business. In fact, to date, we have invested US$1 billion in Jamaica, as part of our ongoing commitment to enable mobile access and innovation. The VoIP providers use and benefit from that, with no investment of their own. The situation is unsustainable, and so we are taking steps to regularise the arrangement.

These unlicensed VoIP operators are causing the industry to lose revenues from traditional overseas carriers (e.g., AT&T, T-Mobile and Vodafone), which would ordinarily pay much-needed foreign currency into Jamaica in network charges and taxes associated with an international call.

As stated by our CEO, Barry O'Brien ('No free ride to parasitic Viber', The Gleaner, July 4, 2014), almost 50 per cent of the revenue received by local operators for an international call is paid over to the Government in tax, some of which goes directly to the Universal Service Fund. As you may be aware, the purpose of the fund is to ensure that vulnerable groups can access ICT services, thereby allowing everyone the opportunity to leverage technology for the betterment of society.

As a long-standing supporter of innovation, we are delighted with Mr Swaby's future plans for his business. We would like to point out that the usage he refers to does not cause concerns for us on the 4G network, as this is what the network was built to accommodate. Streaming traffic does not create issues for the network in the same way VoIP calls do - because 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.

WELCOME OPPORTUNITY FOR DIALOGUE

Digicel's investment in the network in Jamaica is ongoing and anticipates the needs of Mr Swaby. In fact, Digicel's new fibre network will deliver resilient connectivity services to businesses across Jamaica and I would like to invite Mr Swaby to discuss with us the varied solutions that we offer which may work for him in light of his plans for expansion. We welcome the opportunity to meet with Mr Swaby in order to explore the ways in which Digicel can support his business plans in Jamaica and in the region.

The move to block certain VoIP calls is part of our effort to simply ensure that VoIP providers pay a fair price for the services they were taking from us and the Government of Jamaica for free. We are trying to avoid higher charges to our own customers by having these VoIP providers pay for delivery of the calls to our subscribers in the same way that traditional overseas carriers do.

The alternative is customers having to pay through their data plans to receive calls, and we believe this would be a retrograde step. In those countries where VoIP applications are used by a large percentage of mobile users, the local network operators charge a significantly higher fee for data usage in order to accommodate VoIP traffic. Digicel wishes to avoid this.

With discussions with the VoIP providers ongoing, Digicel is hopeful that these measures will only be temporary and that a commercial relationship can be agreed with them, on an individual basis, in the shortest possible time.

Gail Moss-Solomon is head of legal and regulatory affairs at Digicel (Jamaica) Limited. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.