Use VoIP and go to jail

Last week, I posted commentary on problems using SkypeOut, the paid-for service offered by the Skype internet phone service.

I used the example of my wife’s unsuccessful efforts to call numbers in Costa Rica, where we have family and friends. Since that post, something happened.

All of a sudden, calls to the numbers concerned have been getting through. And not only getting through, but the calls have superb clarity and quality, something we’ve not experienced before when calling any numbers in Costa Rica via SkypeOut. Skype, did you do something? I have an idea that you did. Or is it that the phone service in Costa Rica suddenly got better?

That’s definitely a rhetorical question, as there’s something going on in Costa Rica concerning internet telephony, or VoIP, that indicates how much of a threat to traditional phone systems VoIP services like Skype do represent in the eyes of many phone companies.

On Saturday, an article in La Nación (in Spanish, and registration required), the leading and most influential Costa Rican daily newspaper, reports on some pretty radical measures that Costa Rica’s state-owned telephone company is planning to get pushed through the Costa Rican legislature to prevent usage of internet phone services by making use of them illegal.

According to La Nación, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), the phone company, is deliberating two things – either, to consider internet telephony as a fraudulent activity and to make it a criminal offence for anyone to use VoIP services; or, treat it as an added-value service and regulate it.

What? Let’s just run that again.

The phone company is saying that, if they can get this proposed law passed, if you use a VoIP service you’ll be committing fraud, breaking the law and could go to jail. Or, at best, they’ll regulate it and charge you extra to use it, thus eliminating the primary advantage for people in using it.

Not only that, La Nación says that if such a law passes, it will also mean that even using a chat program (MSN or Yahoo Messenger, for instance) with a microphone will be illegal.

The newspaper’s article says that one in every five phone calls from Costa Rica to numbers in the US is now made via an internet telephony service like Skype. That’s 20% of all calls. While the paper doesn’t give any historical comparisons to indicate how much or how quickly this growth has been, it’s clear to see that the phone company is looking at how the future will most likely develop, and wants to ensure it stops in its tracks any threat to its position.

La Nación says that in Costa Rica, the picture may be made more complicated by the fact that, legally, only the ICE is authorized to offer telecommunications services in the country. The paper quotes Claudio Bermúdez, deputy director of ICE, saying:

VoIP, which has all the characteristics of a telephone service, is considered to be a carrier and substitute telephone service, and so is required to use the public telecommunications infrastructure.

The ICE also controls internet access to and from the country.

The situation re VoIP in Costa Rica may or may not be representative of what is happening in other developing countries where telecommunications infrastructure and services typically are state owned and major sources of revenue. One example where it’s not typical is in its Central American neighbour El Salvador which introduced a low-cost VoIP international phone service last week, according to La Nación.

It seems to me that the Costa Rican phone company and the government are resisting the inevitable. But if you add in the significant political (and social) upheavals in recent months due to some major scandals reaching into the highest levels of government, and which also implicate certain people in ICE (I commented about this last September), perhaps it’s not too surprising to see astounding moves like this.

4 thoughts on “Use VoIP and go to jail

  1. That’s what happens when the government invests too much in technologies that support the greying past and forgets that the seamless future is being built by its decisions today.
    You see this in many latin countries, who still exist on corrupt relationships and golden pockets.
    My suggestion – get your friends in Costa Rica to start blogging about the real issues and involve the students.

  2. Didn’t CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement) break up the telecom “monopoly” in Costa Rica? Under CAFTA is ICE really the only organization legally allow to offer telecommunications and internet services?
    Who would invest in Costa Rica so they could pay 50 cents a minute for a questionable connection back to the USA?
    Why doesn’t anyone scream about the VOIP blocking that is happening in Costa Rica?

  3. Colby, people are indeed blogging it and talking about it in many discussion forums in Latin America. Quite a few letters in La Nación re their Feb 12 report, expressing outrage at the ICE’s plans.
    Re a telecom monopoly in Costa Rica, well, it exists. And what we see with what’s going on in Costa Rica re this VoIP issue looks to me like a classic example of your points, Colby.

  4. Costa Rican national phone service wants to ban VoIP

    Apparently concerned that it will lose market share, a fellow blogger explains that the Costa Rican government is deliberating whether or not to regulate and add surcharges to users on VoIP services, or to ban its use altogether.

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