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Viber reports uptick in traffic amid VoIP blockade - Telecoms effort described as bad for business, education services

Published:Friday | July 11, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Richard Browne, Business Reporter

A blockade of Internet-calling services, or VoIP, by local telecoms could impact the development of entrepreneurial companies in the technology sector and other services, sector interests say.

The blockade, however, may be a moot point as the voice service providers appear to have the technical capacity to overcome the blocks.

Talmon Marco, the CEO of Viber, said last week that his system was able to bypass any block put in its way, though it could take considerable time.

At first, it appeared that the block was firm, as the Viber service continued to be unavailable for Digicel customers, with users getting a message reading: "Viber service is currently unavailable or being blocked. Please try again later. Place a regular call instead."

But later in the week that appeared to no longer be the case, with several users telling the Financial Gleaner that they were having no problems making or receiving Viber calls on the Digicel network.

It also appears that the publicity has resulted in more users, not less, accessing Viber's service.

"It looks like we are seeing a spike in voice usage in Jamaica on 3G," Marco told the Financial Gleaner late last week.

Howard Haughton, adjunct professor of finance at the University of Technology Jamaica, and managing director Holistic Risk Solutions Limited, who has access to Viber, said this week that his concern about the VoIP blockade goes beyond implications for the tech sector.

It could curtail long-distance education, and add to the cost of operations for small and medium enterprise sectors, while stifling creativity, he says.

SMEs often use Skype and other VoIP providers as an inexpensive alternative to videoconferencing.

"I tend to use it a lot for business calls," Haughton said.

The move would also negatively affect distance-learning courses, where students often have meetings with their tutors on Skype. "So you would be having an impact on the education sector," he said.

Digicel Jamaica and LIME Jamaica have blocked services such as Viber that they say are piggybacking on their networks.

Digicel has called the unlicensed services 'parasites', which burden its network and impact the quality of the service it delivers to its own customers.

Last week, tech entrepreneur and angel investor JJ Geewax said he would be inclined to bypass Jamaica as an investment destination were the blockades to stay in place.

The American, who is setting up an angel investor group and has invested in four Jamaican tech start-ups, says he will continue to invest in Jamaica "as long as Digicel and LIME get their act together".

Geewax argued that the rationale used by the telecoms against VoIP providers could be used against other internet services.

A mobile payment start-up, which he is investing in, and which could end up competing against a similar Digicel service "could be blocked by Digicel," he said. "That doesn't seem right to me."

Geewax, who was speaking at the annual PSOJ/JMMB economic forum in Kingston, said: "There needs to be some reasonable dialogue about what they can block".

Haughton, meantime, says tech-nology services like VoIP tend to facilitate other forms of business activities.

"We can't just grow dasheen and coco. You've got to allow the creative juices to flow," he said. "If you kill that you are killing commerce."

The Office of Utilities Regulation said it would meet with consumer groups and telecommunications service providers LIME and Digicel to discuss complaints over the VoIP block.

The telecoms Trinidad regulator also urged Digicel to lift the block on VoIP services in that country while it investigates and attempts to resolve the issue.