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!

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.

DST in an Internet Age

Last night, Pakistani clocks have been moved forward by an hour to implement the Daylight Saving Time which is aiming at reducing some of our energy costs. DST is debatable, to say the least. Look up for the topic and you will see how many arguments exists in its favor and against.

That we have an evil energy crisis at hand (which is bent upon slowing us down even when we have just started to move forward as a nation) is a fact. And fighting a crisis of 21st century with a 100 year old trick might not be the coolest thing to do.

With teledensity in Pakistan being touted as the highest in the region and Internet finding a mainstay in our dailylives, we need to look at innovations that can conserve energy for the nation. The regular options that come to mind such as telecommuting, mobile transactions and remote control of energy spending gadgets might validly be a pass-time for the advanced world. However, I believe that the power of having almost half of the nation talking to each other via cell phones should be harnessed via a social campaign to reduce our power consumption.

Why can’t we have a ring tone campaign similar to ‘go musharraf go’ such as ‘bijli bachao doostoon’ (friends, lets save electricity) and social SMS campaigns saying ‘turn one power consuming item now’? Why can’t the chain-letter-loving nation send energy conservation messages to each other to raise the awareness on this critical issue. The connected Pakistan is a large, influential audience which, if it acts in harmony, can make big changes happen.

Broadband Penetration – MoITT, USF @ Work

Universal Service Fund (USF) is the company formed to make use of the USF money that PTA has been generating out of the booming telecoms market of Pakistan. So far, USF has worked towards using its funds for the spread of voice services in the under-served markets of Pakistan. Of late, Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication has intended to guide USF to do the same towards increasing broadband penetration too.

USF, after some initial work, has concluded that there are no particular areas that could be defined as ‘under-served’ in terms of Pakistan and rather the entire Pakistan is under-served. USF has now asked MoITT to pass a ‘determination’ towards the same fact allowing USF to utilize the funds anywhere and everywhere in Pakistan.

MoITT has published a 39 page study document on the web which seeks to establish this fact (that the entire Pakistan is under-served in broadband services). A consultation session was held in Islamabad yesterday to discuss this matter with the industry. The proceedings and details of the session are still to come out but here are my initial takes on the document and its contents:

The  major conclusion points of the documents are:

  • Pakistan’s broadband penetration is very low
  • Currently there are around 100K Broadband subscribers which need to be taken to 1.6 million by 2010 (1% of population)
  • This low penetration is earning bad scores for us under the WSIS measuring criteria & there is a strong need to improve the same
  • Three approaches have been suggested for the GoP’s intervention in this ‘dismal’ state of broadband affairs:
    • No intervention – leave it to market; slow broadband growth expected
    • Bundle with Basic Services – only rural areas will benefit; existing broadband provides will loose
    • Tackle issue with a new format – dedicated efforts are expected to yield better results; divided in various phases

The document assumes or maintains that fixed broadband is a dwindling trend and wireless broadband will finally prevail (page 23). While this is true for the last mile domain, the infrastructure is ALWAYS wired (read fiber). The guys at the MoITT need to be pointed to this omission in consideration. Pakistan need to have a good wired infrastructure before we can decide which of the two last miles options (wired or wireless) is good for us.

The study also repeatedly mentions the similarity between low tele-density and low broadband penetration. However, the applications/demand side difference between the two (voice and data) is repeatedly ignored. While it is true that the gap between 2.7% tele-density (from where our telecoms boom started off) and current 50% tele-density was one of the reasons for the boom, it was the application (voice) that was ready to exploit this gap. In the case of broadband, a similar gap exists and this gap is what the study is considering as an opportunity. However, as obvious, the difference between our last success (in cellular voice) and current challenge is that of application – do we have compelling applications that will drive the growth that can ride this gap?

The document also does not considers demand creation at all. While supply end enhancements (by way of USF subsidies towards network deployments etc) are more than welcome, a significant portion of the efforts must go towards demand creation activities. Mandatory use of electronic facilities in the business circles, tax cuts for ISPs interconnecting with each other, financial benefits to private TV channels to host streaming servers inside Pakistan, creation of public/open Internet Exchanges etc are all example of such efforts.

PTA gears up for IX and Peering Initiative

It comes as a stress reliever to read that PTA is finally inching towards pushing the local Internet industry towards a saner state where local traffic gets cleared locally without wasting the countries foreign exchange and without costings the end users hundreds of useless milliseconds of RTT delays.

PTA has issued an RFP that seeks consultation services on the topic of local Internet exchanges and peering points. I am not sure what direct role can PTA play in private peering as it is mostly a two-party arrangement for their own respective good with little intervention required by any third party. However, the IX domain will greatly benefit from PTA exerting its role and responsibility in bringing major players on-board.

Also, the move is going to have a direct financial impact on the top-of-the-chain IP bandwidth providers like PTCL and TW who currently do not discriminate between local and transit bandwidth and make money for both types of the bandwidths alike. With IX infrastructures in place, customer IP requirements for local needs will drop down in the short term but, as a rule, IX infrastructure will promote the overall appetite of the industry for more transit bandwidth as a whole.

Let’s hope for the best.

PakistanTelecom & Economy Indicators

Amir Rajput has posted an interesting analysis of the ‘Telecommunication Indicators’ recently published by PTA. The figures (economic_growth.pdf) in the analysis conclude that most of the economic growth being recorded in Pakistan is attributed to the Telecom sector.