Internet subscribers in Pakistan suffered a big blow in late August 2002 to an essential digital convenience – the ability to make use of cheap Internet-based services that enabled them to 'call' worldwide using Internet Telephony as the underlying technology.
Ever since the ISP boom in the county, the state-owned telephone company (PTCL) had been complaining about dropping revenues in terms of long distance International calls and cited Internet Telephony services as the culprit. (Others believe that it’s the corrupt officers within the ranks of PTCL – helping foreign VoIP companies operating illegally – who are the main cause of the dropped down revenues).
PTCL established a new Internet bandwidth service (by the name of Pakistan Internet Exchange) some months ago, which carried very attractive price tags to its offerings. With the troubled economies everywhere, ISPs were quick to jump on the PIE offering. When everything was in place and PTCL in full control, the Internet Telephony websites were blocked in one swift action leaving half a million Internet subscribers helpless.
Critics maintain that the blockage of Internet Telephony traffic by PTCL is not just about being deprived of a simple facility but down right 'content filtering' - a move considered to be highly objectionable to Internet growth. There is already talk of blocking ‘obscene’ sites. Who decides what is obscene? And once ‘obscene’ sites are blocked, can the blocking of ‘objectionable’ sites be far behind?
Technical circles were quick to mention that 'Internet Telephony' services do not fall into the definition of 'Basic Telephony' - a technical term reserved for the toll quality telephone services to which PTCL has monopolistic rights inside Pakistan. There are no service guarantees and quality assurances in Internet Telephony and hence it is a separate service altogether and cannot be taken as 'voice'.
An Internet subscriber who typically spends several hours talking over Internet Telephony is not expected to carry on the same call durations on the PTCL-offered, expensive toll quality International calls. Hence, there isn't any case for 'opportunity loss' for PTCL in the first place!
ISPs who have a part of their bandwidth coming from any other non-PIE arrangement were quick to cash in this opportunity and started marketing exclusive Internet access packages on which Internet Telephony services continue to work.
It is ironic that the ban is coming at a time where the overall world telecommunication environment is literally running on its toes toward deregularization and liberalization. Unlike other countries on the onward march, here at Pakistan we have taken a step backwards.