LDI-backed Anti-voip Move – Now More Evil

There is nothing bad in an Internet world than to fear new technologies. In fact, fearing new technologies in general is a bad idea itself.

Pakistan – like the rest of the developing countries – stands strong as a potential beneficiary from the worldwide ICT related businesses provided a liberal Internet policy is adopted at all levels.

When PTCL was a monopoly in telecommunications in Pakistan and in came the cellular operators, positive things happened for the consumers – services improved, rates declined and availability got almost ubiquitous. Of course, the financial success that the cellcos met in Pakistan is an over-stated fact.

The left-behinds in all the high-water mark events mentioned above were the LDI operators who, while started off with great zeal and put in a lot of money too, found the telecoms environment too diluted and with much of undercutting going on. The rates (for termination inside Pakistan) went as low as 1 cent per min for wholesale carriers. A number of LDI operators burnt out in these conditions never to be seen again.

Later, around the beginning of this year (2008), sanity finally prevailed and the LDI operators and the authority decided that it was time to end the next to free rates to Pakistan termination traffic and raised the nominal tariff to 10 cents per minute. This move, which was essentially about LDIs putting their own house in order, alone injected a new life in their business. Salaries for the staff started coming in time and new equipment started being ordered by the operators.

Despite some undercutting, the rates in the international market for wholesale termination inside Pakistan are still above the 7 cents per minute mark and this leaves a considerable room for the operators to keep and take their business forward. According to rough industry estimates, only the recorded business is worth in access of 700 million minutes (or $35 million @ 5c/min) per month (grey traffic not included).

The LDI operators, in an effort to pump more out of this new found oil well, requested en mass the PTA to go after the grey traffic operators and invested in equipment that claims to detect and mitigate voip traffic in real time. This equipment has been on the international exit points in Pakistan. Suspected IP traffic was detected and investigated to see if it grey, or belongs to an un-intimated call center. This stuff was reportedly being done manually so far.

So far, the business-saving and law-enforcing arrangements by the LDIs and PTA appear to be logical and permissible. No one likes grey operators – the steal legal traffic from licensed players, do not pay taxes and do not help when LEA wants their help in tracing crimes and these guys are generally of, well, grey character themselves.

But when you see this item in today’s The News, it starts getting really uncomfortable:

PTA to start automated blocking of IPs
By By our correspondent
8/27/2008
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will start automated blocking of Internet Protocol Addresses (IPs), involved in illegal termination/origination of international traffic, in a bid to check grey traffic flowing into the country. The facility will be operational within the next few days.

This was announced by PTA Chairman Dr Muhammad Yaseen in a meeting with the CEOs of major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of the country held at the PTA headquarters on Tuesday.

He requested all the ISPs to declare their IP addresses along-with the antecedents of their customers so that illegal telecom traffic could be monitored. It was emphasised that the operators should oversee their customers to make sure they are not involved in grey traffic termination. He sought the operators’ cooperation to stem the menace of grey telephony.

The ISPs appreciated the recent steps taken by the PTA including an announcement in the press wherein call centres were asked to provide their IP addresses to the PSEB to ensure uninterrupted services.

Since the inception of technical facility in May 2008 at the PTA, the IP addresses found to be involved in illegal activities were being blocked manually and in the process, over 14 million minutes (worth around Rs100 million) have been saved on monthly basis. Now these would be automatically blocked if any IP, not authorised to carry voice, is found doing so. Under the current policy, only LDIs and international call centres are authorised to carry voice across national boundaries.

The problems with the above arrangements are many:

  1. There ‘real-time’ nature of the voip blocking apparently takes away the manual process and the sanity that can possibly accompany these efforts
  2. The regulator will now essentially be ‘peeking’ inside the contents of the traffic. True, they are looking for voice packets but one is justified to think, ‘what’s next’?
  3. PC-to-PC voip traffic – which unfortunately has been neatly wrapped in clouds of uncertainty by the regulator despite the industry literally begging for clearer guidelines on this topic – might get disrupted. The optimistic take here is that the Naurus gear would be intelligent enough to have thresholds that can distinguish between an occasional PC-to-PC voip caller and a bulk grey operator.
  4. For the network applications administrators, troubleshooting will now get more complex as the high-end IP transit operators are no more acting transparently and the traiff is getting actively peeked inside and the Naurus system would be fiddling with it if it passes the defined litmus tests of being grey voice.

The LDI operators are best advised to invest more into the reliability and reach of their network instead of lobbying the regulator to take effects that could be counter ICT development. The industry is clearly against illegal activities but at the same time, a liberal Internet regime is one of the prime enabler of a saner IT featuring future of Pakistan.

All are requested to keep an eye on their network performances with the possibility of network issues cropping up due to this imminent implementation of automatic voip traffic suppression.

And let us hope the equipment vendor is not making us a guinea pigs for their new software releases!

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India to allow Internet Telephony

Update: Here is the pdf version of the press release issued by TRAI on this subject.Thanks to Wasim at TGP.

Very much related to my previous post, an interesting news from India is coming – possible opening up up Internet Telephony as a service. Pakistani regulators should give Internet telephony a pro-consumer thought and, for the umpteenth time, not follow but lead India in pro-consumer policy making.

According to an email from Frederick Noronha posted on Pakistan ICT Policy mailing list by Jehan Ara:

TRAI allows Internet telephony; STD tariffs may drop

New Delhi (PTI): Telecom users will soon be able make calls from their personal computers with Internet connection to a land line or a mobile phone and vice versa, if a TRAI recommendation in this regard finds acceptance with the government.
The suggestion by the telcom regulator, if accepted, will further boost competition in the domestic long distance segment and may lead to fall in STD tariff.

“It is envisaged that customers will ultimately benefit from cost effective and innovative Internet telephony service. These recommendations will put Indian telecom sector in tune with global trends. The grey market tendencies shall be curtailed,” TRAI said in a statement.

As per the TRAI recommendations, the STD service providers would be connected to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through public Internet for the purpose and the two service providers would have mutual agreement for the same.

The move will permit calls from personal computers to fixed line and mobile phones. At present, a voice call can travel between two computers but not from a mobile or a fixed phone. This is expected to open channels of huge revenues for ISPs.

The Telecom Engineering Centre (TEC), a technical arm of Department of Telecom, will work out the number plan for the ISPs to enable them to offer telephone services.

“Telephone numbers from identified blocks shall be allocated to ISPs,Unified Access Service Providers, Basic Service Providers and Cellular Mobile Service Providers for internet telephony,” TRAI said.

With a view to make Internet telephony secure, TRAI said, all ISPs interested to provide unrestricted Internet telephony would install” Lawful Interception” equipment.

Internet-based LL Services

Fellow blogger and friend Babar Bhatti has complained about the problems he is facing in using Braintel’s local loop services (probably from out there in US). A reader has commented on this citing a PTA ban on such operations by the local loop operators in Pakistan.

The main issue here is the ability of the LL operator to replace the traditional copper for its end user or the expensive 1900 Mhz WLL frequencies for its end user with the ‘Internet cloud’. It is technically possible but the use of Internet for voice problem had its own fair share of cloudiness. At the center of this debate is the use of the word ‘long distance’ – whether it is to be taken physically or network-wise.

When last LDI/LL licenses were issued, the LL license itself was a cheap affair – though the spectrum (both for 1900 Mhz and 3.5 Ghz) was auctioned at high prices. At that time, a number of Internet savvy people – Brain included – took the LL license only banking on new VoIP technologies to come to their rescue later.

A few VoIP technology companies (a cross between operators and technology vendors if you will) had been constantly chasing the smaller LL operators (as described above) evangelizing the use of VoIP in local loop operations where the ‘affinity to local numbers’ is the actual ‘good sold’ and the profit comes in from volumes of such ‘numbers’ beings sold worldwide at fixed monthly rates (but not actually always being used).

These VoIP technology companies met some success during the past couple of years with a number of LL operators signing up them either as partners or just technology vendors. At that time, cellular industry was priming and people, operators and the regulator somehow had little time to attend to this possibly controversial issue.

Now that the market is nearing a tele-density of over 50% and market consolidation has started, these by-issues will get more attention (and probably get more debated).

PTA’s clarification on use of VoIP (available from PTA’s website and discussed on some related online forums) is of little help as it leaves room for guessing by the readers.

My personal position here is that given the non-deterministic nature of public Internet (specially when the bandwidth is not directly coming from a T1 operator) as a transport mechanism for real time traffic, such ‘Internet-glued’ LL services should be allowed – they will always be placed at number 2 in terms of voice quality and deterministic performance. Such services could be declared a new class of service with clear requirement of informing end consumers about emergency services not working on them as well as possible degraded voice performance due to third party packet networks that happen to lie between the end networks. Given a considerable population of expatriate Pakistanis around the world, these services stand a fairly good chance of catching on in popularity and can earn some part of the much needed forex for country by the local companies offering such services worldwide.