Monday, March 4, 2024

Botswana to retain VoIP services despite BTCL’s struggle

Unlike some African countries, Botswana will not ban free Internet calling services to ensure the survival of the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation Limited (BTCL).

“Any attempts to protect traditional voice-calling technology would be counterproductive as it would be going against market demands. As a free market economy, Botswana believes that the best approach is to allow market forces to influence the type of services it requires,” says Ephraim Balebetse, the Deputy Permanent Secretary (ICT) in the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

A related point he makes is that the international market trends have shown that in this era of the Internet of Things, voice services are declining and are being replaced by data services.

Balebetse compares restrictions on accessing Internet content and applications to “swimming against the tide”, noting that ICT-advanced economies like the United States, Europe and South East Asia embrace Internet-based applications, content and services because it is in the Internet space (or the cloud) that innovation, entertainment and socio-economic development are facilitated.

“Banning VoIP will be akin to isolating the country from a larger part of the world,” he adds.

That has certainly not been the attitude of some African governments (Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia and Zimbabwe) which have restricted the use of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services. Gambia’s equivalent of the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) banned the commercial use of such services after losing a lot of money to Skype. Having been in political turmoil since the Arab Spring, Egypt’s case was peculiar in that it banned VoIP services due to security concerns. Lately, BTCL has not been doing too well and if the Botswana government were to apply a Gambian solution, use of VoIP would be altered in such manner that the recently privatised state-owned enterprise can be restored to profitability. Balebetse notes the peculiarity of the Botswana situation by pointing out that in one respect, VoIP (which was introduced in Botswana in 2006 to further liberalise the local telecommunications market) was meant to lift the restriction on its usage by Value-Added Network service providers.

“In its approach to regulate the communications sector, Botswana subscribes to technology neutrality. Therefore, the introduction of VoIP was a deliberate government policy decision that is in sync with international communications technology development trends,” says Balebetse who contests the idea that VoIP services are free.

In service of the latter assertion, he states that consumers have to access the Internet (whose services have to be paid for) to make calls.

“Internet, whether accessed through a mobile phone, computer or any other Internet compatible device comes at a cost. Therefore, VoIP is not a free service per se as it is Internet protocol-based services that can only be enjoyed once one has paid for Internet access. As an example, if your data bundles deplete while you are making an Internet call, the call will be terminated because the money you paid for the Internet access that facilitated the call would have run out. The point is that Internet calling is not free, whether it is from PC to PC or PC to phone or phone to PC or phone to phone,” Balebetse says.


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