Published on July 12th, 2006 | by Babar Bhatti14
So you want to make (almost) free calls to Pakistan?
If you are interested in making calls to Pakistan for a nominal cost it is worth knowing about Internet Telephony or VOIP, its availability in Pakistan and the controversies surrounding it. As far as disruptive technologies go VOIP tops the list. VOIP is the future of communication. See references at the end for further information about VOIP and other related technologies.
You’ve probably dabbled with the services which offer free PC-to-PC calls (Yahoo, MSN, GoogleTalk) .. gets the job done but not the most convenient and attractive solution. The user-friendly options use VOIP technology transparently … you make calls from a regular phone to another regular phone line (with or without additional tools). You may have used this when you used a phone card to call Pakistan from abroad or the other way around. Or you can have a VOIP enabled phone and service such as offered by Vonage. The main attraction of VOIP is its nominal cost compared to conventional phone rates and the freedom of being able to access your communication anywhere Internet is available. VOIP has come a long way in the recent years with great improvements in quality and reliability.
Now lets discuss the current situation with VOIP in Pakistan. For years and years PTCL has been enjoying monopoly on international call rates. The emergence of VOIP is a big threat to its international call revenue and accordingly Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA), the regulatory arm of PTCL, has closely controlled and regulated the use and licensing of VOIP. On the other hand VOIP is a market opportunity sought after by many companies in Pakistan including the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This tension is an international phenomenon. India has exactly the same sort of problems. Infact most countries are struggling with a good policy for VOIP which balances consumer interests and incumbent provider revenues. See here for a summary of VOIP policy for selected countries.
For an overview of PTA’s point of view on VOIP regulation see this article. According to PTA the problem is with those who want to use the enhanced services without proper license and revenue sharing agreements. Of course PTCL is using VOIP for its own use and has contracted with Nortel to build the infrastructure … the controversy is mainly around other independent operators of VOIP. There are number of technical and non-technical ways by which PTCL enforces its rules.
The policy of PTA towards VOIP has major implications for communication choices for Pakistanis living in Pakistan and abroad. It certainly goes beyond the millions of Pakistanis living abroad who are interested in staying in touch with family and friends. It impacts the productivity and competitiveness of Pakistani businesses (call centers, offshore outsourcing firms etc) which rely on frequent communications with partners and clients. The market opinion is that the regulation of Pakistani VOIP market is hurting the adoption of new and cost-effective technologies in Pakistan.
Recently the issue of VOIP got highlighted as the services of one of the licensed private telecommunication firm BRAIN TEL were stopped by PTCL. In 2005 Braintel was given permission by PTCL to provide VOIP phone numbers in Lahore. However by definition VOIP service can be initiated form anywhere with Internet access therefore it became very popular with Pakistanis abroad who could use a regular phone with adapter and make calls using a Lahore area code phone number. Eventually PTCL got uneasy about the “abuse”and took the service down last month. The buzz on the online discussion forums is that Braintel is trying to reach an agreement with PTCL and the service will be restored. Till then all those who got used to picking up the phone and dialing their family without entering long calling card PIN numbers or international area codes should keep their fingers crossed.
- Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voip
- A pdf presentation from ITU website
- FCC page on VOIP http://www.fcc.gov/voip/