Digicel is calling on Cayman’s Information and Communication Technology Authority and other government entities in the Caribbean to regulate a relatively new service called Viber, which allows users to call phones around the world at cheaper rates by bypassing traditional international phone systems and charging local call rates.
Internet phone calls, through systems like Skype, have become a popular way for people to talk or video chat internationally. Viber takes that technology one step further and gives international callers access to local phone systems so they can pay local rates for international calls.
Russell Richardson, general counsel for the ICTA, said, “The Authority has yet to investigate whether Viber should be licensed by the Authority in the Cayman Islands for the services it provides.”
He added that the regulator has no plans now to investigate “but it is on our radar.”
Viber uses Voice over IP, known commonly as VoIP, which allows people to make phone calls, do video conferencing and use similar services over the Internet instead of using a traditional phone line or cellphone. VoIP is the backbone for just about all of the applications people use to make free or inexpensive calls overseas, including Skype, Google Hangout and Vonage.
Viber takes the system a step further and connects the Internet-based phone calls to local phone networks to call local cell numbers or land lines, similar to Skype. Viber charges local calling rates in whatever jurisdiction the user is calling.
David Geary, general counsel with Digicel, said Viber is “outside of the regulatory paradigm” and “should be subject to normal rules.” Those rules for telephone operators include interconnection agreements between phone providers, quality requirements and licensing.
Mr. Geary called Viber’s business illegal under telephone laws. The other biggest difference for Viber is that it registers users with their phone number instead of a traditional user ID like Skype. Viber users, Mr. Geary argues, “are intending to make a phone call” and the company should be required to follow the same rules as other telephone carriers.
He said Digicel’s main issue with Viber is that “someone has to pay for the network.”
“Local operations rely heavily on incoming voice calls from overseas,” Mr. Geary said, and Viber gives users a route around that system that provides income for companies like Digicel. Customers using Viber still have to pay data rates if they are not on an Internet network, but, according to Mr. Geary, voice calls subsidize data plans in the region.
He said Digicel has sent letters to every regulator in the Caribbean asking for similar action to treat Viber as a phone carrier and not just a voice and video chat app.
Viber, like its competitors Skype and Google Hangout, is an application that can be installed on smartphones, tablets and computers. Users can chat with text, voice or video together for free. Viber Out, a separate part of the app, allows users to buy credit to call overseas for very low rates, as low as 1.3 cents per minute.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has several regulations for VoIP providers. They must be able to call 911 if the service is used as a primary phone line, like Vonage, and all need to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which makes phone surveillance easier for police.