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Matt Nash

Lebanon’s VoIP ban

The cacophony of foreign languages gave the small shop the feel of a UN General Assembly meeting. Four people from separate countries making international calls talked up a storm on Thursday, crammed into a tiny store on a side street in Hamra.

Calls to the US, the shop’s proprietor told NOW Lebanon, are 1,000 Lira ($0.66) for eight minutes and made via the internet. Not only is the shop’s price around $2 lower than the official rate for a similar-length call charged by the state-run fixed-line operator Ogero, but three weeks into the enforcement of a ban on the shop’s technology, the customers packed inside were chatting away without a problem.

In an effort it says is specifically aimed at stopping illegal operations like the one NOW Lebanon visited, the Ministry of Telecommunications is enforcing parts of a 2002 law that banned Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, like Skype and magicJack, angering many at-home users of these services in the process.

Illegal call centers cater mostly to Lebanon’s low-paid foreign workforce, and, according to a June 9 ministry press release, they cost the state $150 million each year in lost revenues. With a monopoly on the country’s telecom infrastructure, the state sets high call rates, making millions off the sector every year.

It is unclear – and NOW Lebanon has heard competing narratives – how the ministry is enforcing the ban from a technical standpoint, but it is upsetting business people and many who say they cannot chat on the cheap with friends and relatives.

Internet forums and blogs are teeming with posts complaining about – and explaining how to circumvent – the ban.

Imad Atallah, owner of a software company that uses VoIP to speak with clients and co-workers in the US, told NOW Lebanon that this technology no longer works in his Badaro office.

“It’s short sighted in the sense that it’s preventing people from doing their work,” Atallah said. “Their whole strategy for anything related to the internet, telecom or digital is short sighted.”

Phillippa Biggs, an economist with the International Telecommunications Union, told NOW Lebanon in an e-mail message that commercial VoIP bans are still – and long have been – popular globally, a trend that is only slowly changing.

Lebanon is sticking with its decision against allowing the technology, even as more countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia lift their bans, said Riad Bahsoun, CEO of a local IT company and the vice chairman of the board of directors of the IT industry group SAMENA Telecommunications Council.

Bahsoun said the ministry does not have the technology to enforce this measure itself, and is relying on internet and data service providers to do it for them. Two sources familiar with the IT sector – who spoke anonymously so as not to upset the ministry – disputed that, and said the ministry has several options, though they did not know which it was using.

A commenter posting on the popular Qifa Nabki blog under the name RedLeb argued that Ogero is playing a game of “whack-a-mole” trying to block the paths VoIP technologies take to the internet as savvy providers keep changing their routes.

Whatever the method, the result is apparently a hit-or-miss application of that ban that has definitely not completely crippled Skype. A legal internet café worker and many users otherwise affected by the ban report they can still use Skype to call from computer to computer, but not from computer to telephone.

Enforcement is seemingly all the more complicated by the fact that an estimated 50 percent of internet subscribers in Lebanon pay illegal operators for access.

The sources close to the IT sector told NOW Lebanon the state does not know where these illegal operators get their access to the net, meaning the ban cannot be applied to them. However, in the course of reporting on this sector in the past, NOW Lebanon has repeatedly heard, as RedLeb argues, that the state knows exactly how the illegal providers do business and refuses to stop them because they are politically protected.

Either way, like the recent controversy over broadcasting the World Cup, legal internet providers are worried that if the ban does not apply to the illegal operators, they’ll begin to lose business.

“Customers will start leaving us to go to them,” one source said.

  • alex

    If anyone has found a way around this discrase please feel free to share the secret by sending me an email at scarfase23@hotmail.com thanks in advance

    July 8, 2010

  • lebanse All the way

    Love ur comment Tim, and ur so right I already found the solution for free, and they will never know :P

    July 2, 2010

  • Tim Lebanese

    I run an internet security hosting company in the US. It' really made me chuckle when I heard that the Lebanese Government will attempt to enforce a ban on VoIP. Needless to say that this is the new world order of communication wheither it's via Voice/Video or Text and being backward has a VERY short fuse. The fact remains it will cost the Lebanese Government and the ISPs involved tens maybe hundreds of millions of $ to implement such a system as simple ACL rules blocking ports will be easily turned around more robust Firewalls inspecting packet load will be needed. Not to mention eventually stores in Lebanon and illegal callers will figure out a VERY simple way to get around this as well by using VPN or Site-to-Site VPN a cheap equipment that cost around 100-500$ and a VPN service provided by any Hosting Provider world wide will encrypt their traffic load and act as proxy for their internet bound data making it almost impossible for the Lebanese Government to trace.

    June 21, 2010

  • Khalil

    All in all it is not a matter of stopping illegal call centers that cost the state $150 million each year in loosing incomes not a matter of crammed tiny store on a side street in Hamra, not a matter of state charges -run by fixed-line operator Ogero.All that are a let it go as wild as possible without fuss as much as it is still in hands of their PTT smear’s connections. Yes we all have heard as for Lebanon Now about those untouchable islands in Bourj Hammoud, Nabaa, Dahieh , south of Lebanon, Barouk and so on. But if the Ministry of Telecommunications wants to enforce law and stop those who they believe they are illegal connection like Skype and magic Jack, angering all of us at-home as users of these services like it is in use worldwide without any fuss. Common Ministry of communication and their allies, tell Lebanese openly what is so obvious, tell us you want to keep tight control on all communication as is the case in some of countries around us, tell us you need us to be as much

    June 20, 2010

  • jenna

    We will always find ways around your ban,to steal electricity,to talk illegally on the phone ,to steal gas ,way to go CORRUPTIOOOOOOOON!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 20, 2010