The way the government's newly set up Crime Investigation Bureau (CIB) is cracking down against illegal call bypassers is so uncharacteristically ruthless, one can't help but wonder where this rare resolve stems from. Is there more to the story than meets the eye?
Why this sudden vindictiveness when it comes to dealing with VOIP (Voice
Over Internet Protocol) calls? The draconian measures include objectionable surveillance to detaining Internet Service Providers (ISPs): very unlike the lax and lackadaisical attitude to other far more serious crimes The government is missing the point here. The laws of supply and demand have ensured that international calls via internet is impossible to control. The real reason consumers opt to break the law is that Nepal has one of the highest rates for international calls in South Asia. For an international termination call to Nepal that should not cost more than 1cent per minute, telecom operators here charge up to 14 cents.
As with the American prohibition, the question must be asked why not legalise VOIP? This would allow one-fifth of the population working and living abroad to make cheaper calls home, expand telephony to rural areas thus spurring business and trade, attract investment and entrepreneurship and eliminate the telecom mafia that controls the illicit sector. Why should this be a problem?
The government's argument is that it is losing billions in revenue to illegal internet calls. So, let's get this straight: revenue is more important than providing an affordable service? Nepalis abroad pay through their noses when they call home, wasting their hard-earned riyals and dollars. Any government worth its salt would lower international call rates, license internet calls, and try to make money from the increase in volume of calls and taxes this would unleash.
Instead of devoting outrageous amount of money, resources and expertise in nabbing by-passers and snooping on unsuspecting subscribers, the wiser thing to do would be to legalise inbound VOIP calls. But while the government is less than willing to forego revenue it earns from international calls, illegal VOIP operators themselves don't want their service legalised and are exerting pressure.
Some big names are involved in the illegal VOIP business, and despite their denial some ISPs are involved in providing them bandwidth. Keeping it illegal benefits the operators, allows telecom companies to keep their rates up and allow SIM cards to be used for bulk bypassing. The only losers are Nepalis making international calls. "In all our operations we found that most of the ISPs and telecom operators are involved in the scam. Without their support, call bypassing is not possible," Rajendra Singh Bhandari, DIG at the CIB told me this week. Police complain organised crime is being carried out with calls made through VOIP because they are hard to trace.
VOIP has been legalised in many countries in the last decade and the Nepal Telecom Authority (NTA) is also considering distributing VOIP licences to qualifying ISPs with coverage of at least 25 districts and 13,000 VDCs.
There is however fierce opposition from within the telecommunication sector and even the CIB to this move.
Bhandari questions the motive of those pushing for the legalisation of VOIP when he says 99 per cent of all call bypassing has plugged and billions of rupees added to the state coffers.
However, even more suspicious is the motive of those who want to keep VOIP illegal. While the fear that few big shots would corner the market once VOIP licenses are distributed is valid, there is no alternative to opening up this market and allowing competition to lower rates and improve services better.
Ultimately, cheaper and better technologies always win out no matter what the restrictions. After all, customers should be king.