BEIRUT: The Telecommunications Ministry said it suspended the VoIP license it awarded to the Safico company last month, but denied reports in several media outlets that it had been illegally awarded in the first place.
Critics of Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, such as Future MP Ghazi Yousef, charge that the ministry awarded Safico an exclusive license to operate Internet phone services using Voice over Internet Protocol illegally.
“It’s not up to the minister to issue a license,” Yousef told The Daily Star.
“It has to be approved through the correct channels. First, there needs to be a proposal based on a feasibility study approved by the Telecoms Regulatory Authority.
“Then it must go through the right legal channels. Then the revenue sharing agreement has to be approved by the minister of finance. Then the decree has to be approved by the Cabinet. Then signed by the minister of finance, the minister of telecoms, and the president of the republic.”
According to the Telecoms Ministry, around 400 million minutes worth of calls through Lebanon annually bypass the switches controlled by the state, resulting in an estimated $100 million in lost revenue.
Karim Kobeissi, an adviser to Sehnaoui, said the ministry decided to create a licensing framework that would allow companies to terminate or originate VoIP calls legally and pay the state a 10 percent cut of the revenues.
“The first problem is the lost revenues,” he said.
“The second is the bad quality of service and an illegal market. You see people selling three minutes to the Philippines for LL300. Because none of these calls are going through the switches, we are not generating any revenues,” he said.
“The calls come through the Internet from illegal operators who control servers or soft boxes that make local calls or transform packet protocol into VOIP,” he added.
Though Safico was the first company to be awarded a license by the ministry, Kobeissi said, contrary to multiple reports it was not an exclusive license.
Moreover, Kobeissi said the Telecommunications Ministry asked the Justice Ministry if it was legally permitted to award a VoIP license when it first received the application from Safico and “their answer was positive, meaning yes.”
Sehnaoui decided to suspend Safico’s license April 8 because it wanted to revise the pricing scheme to ensure that it would not erode the estimated $200 billion in telecoms revenues that the Treasury relies on annually.
“The prices were not defined in the license, but ... it was stated that before a company started selling services [it] should submit a price list to the Ministry of Telecommunications for approval,” Kobeissi explained.
“One of the issues we wanted to make sure of is the prices. For example, an outgoing call from Lebanon costs LL600 per minute. We don’t want an [operator] to sell at LL300 because the legal calls will migrate to him,” he added.
“We want him to sell at a level that will ensure that the illegal calls migrate to him because he provides better service, but the legal calls stay with the Telecommunications Ministry.”