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!

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.

PTA Meets on PKNIC Issue

PTA has conducted a meeting of various stakeholders and industry representatives on the issue of PKNIC today in Islamabad. There have been a series of interesting posts on TGP on this topic since this morning and we expect a detailed unofficial minutes of meeting by one caring participant of this meeting soon.

The Tube Trouble and Why its a Good News

The You Tube blocking (orders by PTA to ISPs can be found here) in Pakistan has taken the local blogosphere by the storm – for obvious reason. The news was broken and extensively discussed at various local mailing lists.

The highly sticky video website contributes as much as 1/10th of the entire Internet bandwidth according to some estimates. That’s a crazy big statement.

Every technology blog that has any Pakistani connection has a post about this major disruptive development. While most of the fellows are obviously mad on this blocking, my take is that we might be better off having this issue. The persistent problem (of Internet censorship done the wrong way) is not being intermittently flashed to us any more – instead, this event throws it right into our faces.

That Internet censorship is bad and useless is an established fact but that it happens worldwide in both developing and developed worlds is even more established fact. In the absence of compelling Internet applications in Pakistan, Internet remains the sole killer application for the broadband mass uptake the government appears to be so concerned about.

Hence, given all the boom that Pakistan is experiencing right now (and hopefully after the recent elections results of which have so far pleasantly surprised both Pakistanis and the rest of the world), it is important that we ensure that Internet remains the platform that is relevant to the population and that the Internet consumption keeps an upward consumption trend. The system needs to graduate on this front and move towards improving our infrastructure to be able to keep up with the bare minimum implementations of the various rulings given under the law of the land by the higher courts (which, no doubt, need a big and continuous help that will help them understand the technical intricacies of the cyberspace).

This blockage is huge in terms of impact. Everyone will feel it. From the end users to the media companies and micro content producers to the civil society relying on the powers of You Tube and packet video prevalence, everyone is going to talk about it. Now is the time stop using Cisco ACLs and use layer 4 solutions where the filtering must happen.

I believe this will force the PTA and the government (and the trigger happy PTCL’s PIE) to upgrade their infrastructures so that the delicate balance between civil liberties and our societal sensitivities is well kept.

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.

Wateen Competition in Catchup Frenzy

The recent launch of Wateen‘s Wimax in Pakistan has put its wireless competition in a catchup frenzy. Reports coming from a number of vendors indicate extensive, short notice meetings that are taking place between providers and vendors and very mature decisions levels. Vendors, who had been chasing the providers for their Wimax platforms but faced an undecided response for quite some time now, are finding the new found sense-of-urgency pleasantly surprising. For them, Wateen’s advances on the Wimax front that attracted both local and international applause appears to have shook the sleeping providers from their deep slumber and procrastination.

IXP in Pakistan

PTA is soliciting proposals for Consultancy Services on the issue of establishment of local Internet Exchange Points in Pakistan.

The last date of submission of such proposal is around the end of Feb 2008. Let us hope PTA gets good consultants to get them going in the right direction and speed.

In this relation, here is an interesting presentation on IXP by Guarab Raj of SANOG and PCH fame.