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!

PTA’s Consultation Paper on NGN

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has released a ‘consultation paper‘ on its website for public comments. Those who might be short on time to formally comment on the paper can use the comment space here and I will try to incorporate the inputs in my response.

UIN Charges Unchanged – for now?

PTCL’s latest offers page details some new local call charges plan. Calls in the evening – apparently targeted towards female dominated domestic population – will now cost twice but will last a full hour. This is a tit-for-tat reaction to the Mobilink and Telenor’s Rs 5 an hour and Rs 4 an hour on-net plans.

The UIN charges, as mentioned in point 4 of the announcement, are to remain unchanged at Rs 2 for unlimited time. Unless there is still something cooking, at least for now, the users can relax that the multi-metered Internet calls are not here (yet!).

p.s: The classroom and the student shown in the graphics at the PTCL site bear no resemblance to either Pakistan or UAE. What happened to the principle of local relevance!

Telecom Activity Roundup in AJK & NA

This report from Daily Times provides a good activity roundup relating to new Telecommunication initiatives in Azad Jammu Kashmir and Northern Areas. From the report:

In the wake of October 8 earthquake, the PTA granted temporary permission to mobile phone companies operating in Pakistan for provision of services in quake-hit areas. Later on, they were invited to obtain permanent licenses for AJK and NAs against the ILF of $10 million each.

Subsequently four mobile companies Mobilink, Ufone, Warid and Telenor acquired licenses by paying 50 percent of the license fee ($5 million) each upfront as per the terms of the payment. The $20 million (Rs 1.2 billion) collected by PTA from four operators has been deposited with the AJK Council Secretariat and Chief Secretary, NAs in the ratio of 77:23 based on the population of the two areas. Their share was Rs 927.696 million and Rs 277.104 million respectively. In view of special circumstances, PTA has not deducted any fee from the amount.

The fifth mobile license for AJ&K and NAs has recently been issued to CMPak (Paktel) for which the fees would be deposited under the same arrangements. All five mobile companies will pay remaining 50 percent (i.e. $5 million each) in 10 equal annual installments.

It may be mentioned that, with the introduction of mobile phone services people of these areas are getting enhanced communication facilities. So far, cellular operators in AJK and NAs have provided one million mobile connections. Mobile service is available in the following areas of AJK including Bagh, Bhimber, Bharhing, Kotli, Muzzafferabad, Palandri, Rawalakot, Mirpur, Dhirkot, Ghari Duppatta, Hattian Bala, Dhudyal, Barnala, Kakra, Islam Gargh, Dirkot, Chamankot, Baloch, Sehnsa, KhuiRatta, Hajira, Tarar Khel, Abbas Pur, Jaraee, Rajdhani. Thraowchi, Puna, Sumani, Charoi, Fatepur, Barnala, Paniola, etc. In Northern Areas Gilgit, Hunza, Chilas, Skardu, Shigar, Danyor have been provided mobile services.

Moreover, Special Communication Organisation (SCO) which was the major provider of telecom services in the region till very recent is working on its several developmental activities including Rural Telecom Uplift Project Phase-II for provision of 80,000 telephone lines (along with 266 km Optic Fibre), enhancement of GSM capacity by 65,000 lines, laying of 570 km optic fibre, 26 digital exchanges with VSAT connectivity and laying of outside plant (OSP) in NAs.

SCO is also planning to lay optical fibre cable link for international connectivity between China and Pakistan.

SCO has also taken initiatives to provide Internet services to these areas in the form of Dialup, DSL and CDMA 1X services by entering into O&M agreements with existing providers in Pakistan.

Telenor & MNP

Image005.jpgThe image below is from an extremely low income area – infact, a slum in Karachi. A small cabin-shop that deals in mobile phones, PCO and allied services is serving the population of the katchi abadi.

Owning a cell phone is pretty common even in the very-low income groups in (at least) the bigger cities of Pakistan – thanks to the celluar services boom we are finding ourselves in these days.

As could be seen from the poster visible in the image below, someone who cannot even spell Telenor correctly has pasted these posters across most of similar shops in the slum announcing the MNP facility. When I inquired about this from the shopkeeper whether this is a service exclusive to his outfit he replied in negative saying instead that this is being ‘done by the company’. As we can well decipher, it does not seem like a Telenor’s official announcement but it is almost certain that Telenor has at least some amount of resources dedicated for hooking up even the baseline low ARPU customers into its folds via the MNP route most probably via some sort of market agents.

Mobilink embraces data

The long on-going, almost over-due project was declared signed and closed with Alcatel-Lucent. Daily time has the full story here. This is going to be the second major countrywide Wimax project, the earlier one being deployed by Wateen and uses Motorola’s gear. The project, whose financial size or commercial availability dates has not yet been publicly disclosed, reportedly makes extensive use of the strong channel sales partners that Mobilink has developed in the rewarding cellular market of Pakistan over the past many years.

The next similarly sized announcement should come from PTCL which is still talking to a number of solution vendors in this domain. Apart from these three large scale projects, a number of other entities, some of which are in the security infrastructure of the country, are deploying Wimax technology for their respective requirements.

There are till a number of players like Telecard and Cybernet who won the 3.5 Ghz frequency in the open auctions during deregulation but are not moving ahead with their Wimax adventures for want of some business case precedence and internal priorities.

Telenor PicShare Service Review

Blogging, telecommunication and entrepreneurship are all picking up in contemporary Pakistan. In this context, let me share a quick review I did of a recently launched value added service of Telenor. Telenor has branded the service as PicShare. The service’s back-end is based on a relatively new mobile value added service company called PixSense that has some Pakistani origin.

I have the opinion that Telenor appears to be the most data savvy among the cellular companies operating in Pakistan. Picture sharing and blogging are getting popular and it made a lot of sense for Telenor to have this service and nothing better than selecting a Pakistani back-end company to deliver the results.

Here is the review of the service itself (using Telenor EGE service on a Nokia 6300):

I signed up for the service (cost = Rs 30/mo + Data Charges for image uploads) from the main Telenor website. The menus, that were not very neatly done in terms of graphics, asked for my cell phone make and model and then showed me some bleak (blue) screenshots of the phone’s menus and explained where to go and what to select.

While I was at it, I received a confirmation email from support.pixsense@telenor.com.pk that CONTAINED my password. Normally, this is not the industry practice as plain email is not safe from being snooped on the network.

The application was easy to install via the ‘get application’ button on the Telenor’s website. However, since the application requires a number of access permissions (communication for data transfer and user data for accessing photos and videos stored on the phone), a number of permissions were required to be set. The application itself was not smart to tell which of the permissions are missing so it was cumbersome to visit the complex tree of the application access menu and make sure that these permissions are in place. It took me five to six tries before I was there and every time the application just gave a simple error message ‘check permissions’. I guess putting the intelligence of ‘what permission is actually missing’ can enhance the usability of the application.

Once I fired up the application, the application asked for my telephone number and PicShare password. I guess the telephone number should have been automatically picked up by the application at least. I hoped that I do not have to go through this process every time I use the application and I was right. The next time I started the application and it was intelligent enough to remember my login details.

Once inside the application, it showed the sole snap that I had taken up today. The snap got uploaded automatically probably because I selected the option which allowed this. The background nature of upload did not allow to gauge the speed of the transfer. I guess that was fast. I was hoping that as a courtesy and display pro-privacy thinking, the application to tell me that so many applications have been uploaded to the web from my phone.

I hurried to my notebook to check out the results on the web and this is the Achilles heel of the Telenor PicShare in my opinion. Since the application is from PixSense, Telenor has sort of out-sourced this (or probably that was the only way of doing it) to PixSense. While connected to the Telenor’s website to access my recently uploaded photos, it resorted to frames with the inside frame being called off the Pixsense web servers (http://picshare.pixsense.com). Web developers have long abandoned use of frames inside the web pages for good reasons. Even on a wide-screen desktop of my notebook, I was getting horizontal scroll bars and the two vertical scroll bars (one for the main page itself, the other for the embedded frame) was cumbersome and for a while took me back to 1995 when frames were still being used.

The PicSense online interface for viewing and managing does not allow direct URLs so that the uploaded images cannot be used directly – a great disadvantage to those who blog. Since the service is ‘all about sharing’, it makes sense that this requirement should have been considered. The system does allow a ‘download’ button to download the jpeg image to your computer. I tried sharing one of the snaps and the presence of frames completely confused me about what was happening while the ‘sharing’ page opened up. Once the page reappeared, it gave the option to share the stuff via email or via SMS. I shared the collection by providing it another of my email addresses. An email was received moments late that contained the shared image’s thumbnail and a URL which opened after some delay but once again, with a number of frames.

My overall experience with the service and the application can be rated at 3/5 with lots of room remaining for improvement in the application logic, user notification, privacy and the main web interface on the web.

Other interested users at TGP have noted existing competition such as Twango for this service. If you have any additional review inputs, feel free to share in the comments.