The Saudi government, local telecommunications companies and the country’s regulatory authority have started cracking down on expatriates using software to make unauthorized cheap calls home on the Internet.
The Jeddah police recently arrested five Indians in a house for selling expatriates Internet telephone cards.
This comes just over a week after the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) banned the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) firm Viber in the country. Reports stated that the ban was because the three telecom operators — STC, Zain and Mobily — were losing millions in revenue.
The CITC has also stated that it may take action against other Internet companies offering free or cheap voice, text and audio messaging on the Internet, including Skype and Tango.
The telecom providers and Internet service providers are believed to be using VoIP blocking software to protect their revenues by preventing Internet-based VoIP traffic from running on their networks.
There are no specific regulations over the use of VoIP software in Saudi Arabia and this gray area has led to confusion. According to the VoIP regulatory framework, set by the CITC, all telecom operators can offer Internet telephony services in Saudi Arabia, but none of them does so.
However, the regulations state that it is forbidden to use unauthorized methods to make phone calls. Saudi Arabia is one of two countries in the Gulf region that have tolerated a VoIP culture, while other countries have dealt severely with offenders.
The majority of expatriates from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, use the Internet to talk to their families and friends back home using the software on their smart phones or computers. Many are not even aware that it is illegal. They have almost abandoned calling through the local telecom operators.
Because of the cheap and illegal VoIP calls to Asian countries, Saudi telecom companies often offer special discounts, sometimes reducing overseas calls by 50 percent, at 55 halalas a minute, to most of these countries.
In recent times, the authorities have started cracking down on VoIP systems, closing down Internet cafes and targeting individuals offering these services.
A popular call application that dominated the Saudi market for nearly a decade, which can still be easily installed on any mobile device with an advanced operating system, was blocked by local authorities.
Two other popular applications, one using data SIM cards and the other operating on computers and wireless systems, have also been blocked.
Arab News has learned that the authorities are monitoring all markets where these Internet calling cards are sold, resulting in prices doubling. A 700-minute calling card used to be sold for SR 35. A 350-minute card now sells for SR 60.
Saudi police have arrested five Indians Sulaiman Kardan, Naushad Kardan, Jalil Kardan, Shakeer Noramochi and Ashraf Noramochi, who were running a VoIP calling business in Jeddah. After monitoring them for some time, the police raided their house in Azizia district in Jeddah in the early morning hours and arrested them. The police seized cards valued at SR 23,000, according to sources close to the arrested persons.
Jeddah police spokesperson Lt. Nawaf Al-Bouq said the police raids are being carried out with the aid of the CITC.
The CITC's spokesperson Sultan Al-Malik said that Asian countries have also cracked down on overseas incoming VoIP calls because these calls are evading mandatory landing tax. Telecom operators such as STC, Mobily and Zain all pay mandatory landing tax to telecom authorities in Asian countries whereas VoIP operators do not pay any such tax.
In India, both leading private telecom operators are not allowing any VoIP calls on their networks, in contrast to the country’s public sector telecoms provider, BSNL, and other private operators.
India's intelligence agencies are opposing the mushrooming VoIP incoming calls from Middle East countries.
Pakistan’s telecom authorities and federal law enforcement agencies have effectively curbed the practice of VoIP calls and arrested several people in this regard.
Bangladesh has banned the practice. The Bangladesh telecoms authority's international revenue has surged by more than 80 percent from the increasing landing tax on international incoming calls. Nepal has also cracked down on this practice.