CAIRO: Telecom experts and rights activists slammed Telecom Minister Mohamed Salem’s statement made on Saturday regarding the “$100 million losses” sustained from incoming “smuggled” international phone-calls, describing it as draconian.
“The [Minister’s] definition for a smuggled international phone-call is any voice communication transmitted through the internet, that is untaxed,” said Ahmed Khair, director of the Support Center for Information Technology. “This includes applications which are freely available online.”
Salem was quoted by state-run daily Al-Ahram, saying that the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology would hold discussions with the mobile carriers “to reach technological solutions next week to limit the [smuggled phone-calls] phenomenon,” and that earlier talks had been made with the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA).”
The minister warned that “such electronic solutions could impede bandwidth speed and access to data,” and that “the new telecom law toughens the penalty of smuggling phone calls to reach LE 50,000-500,000, in addition to enforceable imprisonment that can reach up to 3 years.”
Ramy Raoof, online media officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that such calls include the popular VoIP (Voice over IP) telephony Skype software, which facilitates free voice calls between any two users that have internet access, regardless of the device used.
“These maneuvers were used over a year-and-a-half ago when mobile carriers were required to ban Skype on mobile internet services,” Raoof said.
NTRA had enforced a ban in early 2010 on international calls made via mobile internet connections, because the incoming calls would be routed directly through the mobile operators to the users, bypassing Telecom Egypt’s central and “legal” gateway.
Khair explained that the issue was also more or less about control, rather than out of concern about profits.
“It’s all very absurd. There is an attempt to exert control over the various means of telecommunications in an age of technological openness and freedom,” he said, “These means are monopolized by the state, through distribution of licenses given in contracts to certain companies, without regard to the interests of the actual users.”
He explained that the prices of international calls in Egypt (L.E. 2/min. for outgoing calls to the US) were among the highest in the region, mostly being additional taxes. “If the price of international calls were affordable, there wouldn’t be a need to circumvent the central authority.”
Raoof said the grievances made by the minister were one dimensional and didn’t highlight the aspect of personal use.
“They don’t discriminate between both types of calls, commercial and personal … mostly just caring about the income they gain regardless,” he said. Many voice calls, such as those conducted through Skype, weren’t of a commercial nature, he added.
According to Ahram, the minister said the number of subscribers in Egypt had reached 81 million, noting that cellular companies would face a financial crisis within a couple of years due to price competition as the market nears saturation.
On his part, Khair noted that the minister should be worried about improving services to subscribers and compensating them for technical issues, rather complaining about projected losses and “what he terms as abuses.”
“No one knows exactly their profit margins,” Khair said. “Actually, there is no competition. The market is de-facto split up between the three major providers, each with their own allotted turf.”
Subscribers, he added, should only be concerned with they get for their money.
He gave an example of telecom companies that provide purportedly advanced bandwidth services in areas with poor telecom infrastructure, thus exerting more charges from an increasing number of subscribers without remedying their complaints when the service worsens.
“The telecom ministry provided several proposals throughout the past year, mostly concerned with the powers to control, and ability to cut-off services,” Khair said, “but they never mentioned the rights of users or compensation.”
He stressed that the idea of introducing new laws wasn’t what an interim caretaker minister should worry about, but that it was the responsibility of the newly elected People’s Assembly. “What’s [the minister] got to do with the next couple of years? He’s an interim caretaker minister who’s due to last at most for the next five months.”