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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Etisalat Messes Up Again. Twice in a Week.

What have they done now, our favourite (actually, still, our only) phone and interweb company?
1) Banned the use of Google Talk in Internet caf├ęs

2) Launched a ludicrous mobile service for kids in association with SpaceToon Cartoon Channel.

Really, I simply cannot comprehend how the most advanced, ambitious, and otherwise liberal nation in the Arabian peninsula (that's us, the UAE) has got itself lumbered with the most restrictive, and, to quote Emarati 'Nazi' telecoms provider in the region.

I can undestand the monopoly aspect a bit. It seems that almost all countries start off with a monopoly telephone provider. The UK did (first the GPO, which was then spun off into BT, and God it was awful), the US did, Jordan, Saudi, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait - you name it, that's how you start your telephone system. Probably because the initial investment in the network was so huge that private investors would not take the risk. But there comes a time when officially-sanctioned monopolies cease to work in the consumers' favour. I think the UAE reached this point about eight years ago.

But the Government were very very slow to act. It not only owns a controlling share in Etisalat, it also gets 50% of their annual profit as a royalty. It is said that this money is enough to pay the entire payroll of the UAE Federal Government. So in a way, using Etisalat services, and paying their extortionate charges is actually an indirect tax. And Etisalat is the largest employer of UAE nationals in the country. Under pressure from the WTO, a new telecoms provider, Du, has been set up. But guess what? It's 50% owned by the Government, and will still have to pay the 50% royalty...

So, high prices as a hard-to-spot form of taxation aside, what are we left with? Well, Etisalat seems to have set itself up as some kind of moral guardian of the nation. While I can fully understand that some locals might want to be protected against porn, pork, beer, Israel and any criticism of the country, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of websites that are wrongly blocked by Etisalat.

Whats bugs me most about this are sites that compete with Etisalat in some way, or that are only marginally connected to the moral, social and religious beliefs of the country. Things like Flickr - may contain breasts, FriendsReUnited - links to a dating site. But companies the world over that offer competing services, such as VOIP (Skype, Google Talk etc) and bulk SMS gateways are also blocked and this has absolutely nothing to do with the usual reasons for blocking: it is purely to do with Etisalat protecting its precious monopoly. Or to put it another way, denying choice to its customers.

The other dumb thing Etisalat did this week was to launch a mobile phone service that targets kids in the 6-12 age group. In collaboration with SpaceToon cartoon channel, kiddiewinkles will be able to download stuff and upload stuff, and Etisalat is trying to say that it is 'educational'. My ass. Most developed countries explicity forbid the direct targetting of very young kids by marketers for the simple reason that the kids don't know enough to make a judgment and if a TV ad tells them they have to have something then they will pester their parents until they get it. The parents, of course have to pay for it. In the case of this new abomination from Etisalat, they will have to pay, and pay, and pay, every month.

And as a follow-up, Emirates Today carried a front-page story today in which a senior Ministry of Education official said that the ban on mobile phones in public and private schools may be lifted because 'mobile phones can be used for educational purposes'. (Can't link to the story in the Toady 'cos of their lousy website, sorry).

For goodness' sake.

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