Having problems with Skype? Here’s why…

Unless you’ve been taking part in some kind of New Year’s digital detox, you’ll have heard that Skype appears to have been blocked in the UAE. Again.

It’s a confusing issue, with many Skype users in the UAE reporting different experiences. Which is why we’ve attempted to explain everything you need to know about the UAE’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) policy, otherwise known as the “Skype ban”. Brace yourselves for a whole lot of acronyms.

Hopefully this answers some of your questions…

ALSO READ: The legal view on VPN use in the UAE

What is a VoIP service?

VoIP stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol”, which is a fancy term for “online calling”. Basically, VoIP is an alternative way of making a phone call, which can usually be done for very cheap or free, using your internet connection. Some of the most well-known VoIP services include Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and FaceTime – but for simplicity’s sake, we’re just going to refer to Skype in this article.

Ok, so what’s the deal with these in the UAE?

There are two internet service providers (ISPs) in the UAE – Etisalat and Du – which are regulated by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA – sorry, we did warn you there were going to be a lot of acronyms). The TRA says only these two licensed providers are allowed to offer VoIP services in the UAE. That means it’s up to Etisalat and Du to decide whether Skype is allowed.

So… does that mean Skype is blocked?

Well, kinda, sorta… yes. In a statement on its website, Skype says: “It has been brought to our attention that our website and services have been blocked by both of the ISPs in the United Arab Emirates. That means you won’t be able to use Skype in the United Arab Emirates.

“Unfortunately, there is very little Skype can do about this situation. The best course of action would be for you to speak to your ISP and ask why they are blocking Skype and request that they unblock our site and services.”

Hang on, how come I can still use it then?

Many UAE residents will find they have no problems with Skype, or only the occasional glitch. We asked Mike Priest, the editor of Stuff Middle East, why this might be:

“While it’s difficult to know for certain, it could have something to do with the basic way the internet functions. Imagine that between an ISP such as Etisalat and the Internet exists a metaphorical wall that is riddled with holes called ‘ports’. Each port allows different parts of the internet to flow through to Etisalat’s customers. One port for Netflix, another for WhatsApp, and another for Skype and VoIP services etc. Etisalat can then effectively plug these ports to block access to whatever particular services the TRA decides don’t adhere to UAE law.

“The reason that some people may still be able to access some VoIP services could be that the company providing them changes the port being used to one that Etisalat isn’t currently blocking. Of course, without a company expressly coming out and saying that they are doing this, it’s difficult to tell if this is actually what is happening. Skype and other VoIP companies would likely never admit to this because it would mean they are actively attempting to circumvent UAE law.”

Is it illegal to use Skype in the UAE?

Technically, yes. The TRA says on its website: “Any person using VoIP services which are not provided by a licensee [aka Etisalat or Du]… may be committing a criminal offence.”

How else can I video call my friends and family?

Both Etisalat and Du offer TRA-approved alternatives to Skype – called C’ME and BOTIM – but you have to pay for them, and the cheapest package costs Dhs50 a month. You can find out more about those here.

Anything else? Again, we referred to our tech expert Mike Priest:

“There are limited options outside of the paid-for C’Me and BOTIM apps that have been approved by the TRA. One other option is if you purchase an iPhone outside of the UAE it will come loaded with FaceTime (iPhones manufactured for the UAE market do not come with the app) and this will allow you to call other iPhone users who also have the FaceTime app.”

When will Skype be ‘unblocked’?

Stuff editor Mike Priest says unless the VoIP companies come to some sort of agreement with the TRA, it looks like we’re stuck on this path for the foreseeable future. But he does point out that Skype are owned by Microsoft – who are a big global player.

And not everyone is a fan of the ban. In 2016, Saeed Al Remeithi – the youngest member of the UAE Federal National Council – said the UAE’s restrictions on internet calling were an “embarrassment”, according to a Gulf Business report.

It’s also worth noting that last year, Saudi Arabia lifted its own ban on VoIP services, including Skype and WhatsApp.

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