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Morocco is the latest African government to ban free internet calling services, riling consumers, who say traditional calling is too expensive.
Many Moroccans are in uproar over a ban on using mobile and broadband internet to place calls through services such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
After the country's telecoms regulator, the Agence Nationale de Réglementation des Télécommunications (ANRT), declared in January that voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services are not permitted through mobile internet, operators began to block calls.
It's a mockery to all young entrepreneurs who are trying to run international businesses
"Telephony services can only be provided by those who hold an official telecommunications licence [...]. Free telephony on internet protocol does not fulfil these conditions," the body said.
In March, the ANRT extended its ban on VoIP calls to fixed broadband internet connections, drawing further outcry. Protesters have accused mobile operators Maroc Telecom, Meditel and Inwi of trying to maximise profits by forcing customers to buy expensive international talk time.
The recent ban has helped Maroc Telecom, which controls about 40% of the telecoms market share, to boost its profits.
In April, the company reported a 16% rise in its net income for the first three months of 2016, to $1.6bn, compared to the same period last year. Its turnover was also 10.2% higher.
Binta Drave, a telecoms equities analyst with investment firm Exotix, tells The Africa Report that mobile operators are losing money to VoIP services but it's not the only reason for a decline in calling. "Operators often blame VoIP for a decline in voice revenue, but the reality is a bit more complex," she says.
"Voice is a mature product with worldwide penetration rates of 96.8%, and consumers' habits are changing. Social media are becoming increasingly popular." Drave says Maroc Telecom's improved results are mainly due to strong fixed and mobile data growth in Morocco and the performance of its sub-Saharan African operations.
Several attempts were made to contact Meditel's press office to get the company's take on the VoIP crackdown, but no response was provided.
While at least one phone company – Inwi – has confirmed that it is looking into a new internet calling platform to get around the ban on VoIP calls, many Moroccans are simply choosing to boycott traditional calling services.
"I used to use Skype all the time or WhatsApp chat just to say hello," says Moona Benyoussef, a mother of two living in Casablanca who has family in France. "But the costs of calling abroad in the traditional sense are so high it's not worth it. In any case, a phone call is not the same as being able to see people on Skype."
As in many parts of Africa, internet chat services have become increasingly popular in Morocco, with its large diaspora in places such as France and the US. International call packages through the main telecoms operators are expensive.
For example with Meditel, 30 minutes of talk time to France costs about $5. Access to unlimited call time to a select number of countries that includes France, Tunisia, Britain and the US costs around $40 per month.
There are still options available for free calls. Benyoussef explains: "Some messaging services such as Google Hangouts and Facebook are still working, but they're a bit complicated because if people aren't in your network you can end up paying for the call. We've been trying with virtual private network (VPN) services."
Dark web solutions
One of the most common VPN services in Morocco is Betternet, which acts as a proxy server, masking the user's IP address and encrypting internet services.
Other options include the TOR (The Onion Router) app, which is part of what is called 'the dark web'. TOR works by randomly generating a series of IP addresses from anywhere in the world and routing encrypted internet traffic through them. It makes it virtually impossible for national authorities to trace a user's internet history.
The decision to block the free call services led to a storm of protest on social media sites, a relatively rare reaction in Morocco. Protesters launched several online petitions to challenge the ban. One on the site Change.org calling on the ANRT to reverse the decision received 8,500 signatures.
Zakaria Boumarouane, an entrepreneur who signed the online petition, explains the ban's negative impact: "I work freelance, and discussions and business calls over Skype are part of my daily life [...]. What alternatives do the phone companies offer me? It's a mockery to all young entrepreneurs who are trying to run international businesses in a difficult economic climate."
A number of pictures appeared on Facebook of children holding up personalised messages to Morocco's King Mohammed VI to ask him to intervene to help them reach family members in Europe and elsewhere.
All over the continent governments and telecoms companies are grappling with the impact of VoIP services.
In January, the telecommunications committee of South Africa's parliament held meetings on the regulation of Over-The-Top (OTT) services like Skype. Some telecoms operators argued that firms like Skype and Google do not pay local taxes and are thus unfair competition, but the companies providing VoIP services said that they should not be regulated in the same way as telecoms networks.
Committee chair Mmamoloko Kubayi said it was unlikely the government would issue new regulations.
Some still smiling
Not all companies oppose the use of OTT services. Firms like Smile Communications, which operates in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, are proponents of VoIP because they operate 4G LTE mobile broadband networks rather than traditional voice ones.
The Moroccan ban follows similar moves in Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia and Zimbabwe. In Gambia in 2013, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority argued it was losing money to Skype, and the government banned the commercial use of the service in internet cafés.
In September last year, Egyptian users reported problems with internet-based calls, although in this case it seems the telecoms regulator banned services due to security concerns.
Skype responded to the ban in Egypt, saying: "We believe it should be up to consumers, not regulatory authorities, to choose the winners and losers in the communications space." The company has yet to comment on developments in Morocco. ●