Will free VoIP apps disappear from the Middle East? A look at Saudi Arabia's Viber ban

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ViberWhile VOIP (Voice over IP) applications facilitate over represent more than 34% of the total time spent on international calls worldwide, entrepreneurs in the MIddle East often rely on VOIP to stay in touch with employees and partners at their startups. 

Especially in countries where telecom companies have a monopoly or oligopoly that pushes up the cost of international calls, it's a cost effective solution; some studies have shown that companies could cut communication costs by up to 85% by shifting to VOIP.   

And yet, the autonomy that customers have with VOIP does not always sit well with governments. In Saudi Arabia, the  Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) announced last week on June 5th that it would ban Viber, an application that helps users make free alls, send instant messages and share files over the internet.

The Saudi Commission clarified in a brief statement that Viber was banned because it failed to comply with communications rules and regulations of the kingdom.

This March, the Commission released a statement noting the possibility that it would ban a number of internet communication services, including Viber, Skype, and Whatsapp, if the companies failed to modify their products to comply with Saudi Communication laws.

While we haven't been able to get clarification on the regulations that led to banning these services, the ban has raised questions about Viber's funding sources. The applicatiion, which now has over 200 million users worldwide, was developed by a company based in Cyprus.

One of the ban's biggest impacts could be altering life for an estimated 100,000 Saudi students living abroad, who use this application to communicate with their families in Saudi Arabia, says Mazen AlDarrab, the founder and CEO of E-Commerce SEA, a Saudi e-commerce solutions company. "Concerns about the encryption method used by Viber in messaging was raised by the Ministry of Interior. Now," he says, "A lot of Saudis are concerned about which app will be banned next."

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the Arab world that intends to ban voice and message services between Internet users. Other countries have already instituted bans, while others plan to; in mid May, the UAE banned Skype.

A few days ago, Egypt’s National Telecoms Regulatory Authority (NTRA) said that it plans on blocking Viber and Whatsapp “due to economic and security concerns.” The head of NTRA, Amr Badawy, commented on this announcement, saying, “these applications allow subscribers to make free calls, send messages and share files, while their funding sources remain unknown.”

Available alternatives

While the future seems vague for those who mainly rely on VOIP to communicate with their employees and clients, other alternatives that yet aren’t blocked remain available. Google Hangouts, which offer video conference calls over the internet, are one major alternative; other paid services include Webex and Cisco; (see here for more alternatives).

If VOIP services can find a truce with governments, they may be unblocked. Otherwise, there's always VPN.

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