I was testing my new iPhone Skype set up in Belize. It wouldn’t connect. I was connected to the internet via a wireless connection. I had Skype installed and it worked back home. But every time I tried to log in, it would simply hang. Nothing.
In Belize, Skype is blocked.
I quickly found out that the entire country of Belize uses a single carrier for internet service, Belize Telecommunications (BTL). And BTL, seemingly in a desire to force people to use their long distance services has blocked Skype (and other VOIP programs).
I think there’s a comfort in thinking that these kinds of things only happen in faraway places like China or North Korea. But the scariest part? It’s becoming more common. There were some cases of individual internet providers in the US blocking Skype, and until October of this year, AT&T didn’t allow iPhone users to access Skype either. A NY Times piece about allowing wifi access on planes suggested Skype access could be blocked.
As travelers, the ability to connect back home is part of what makes travel possible for many people. Sure you can buy a new cell phone in each country, but if you’re trying to run a business out of your backpack then you need a single number where you can reached. Skype provides that service. It scares the heck out of telecoms who can’t see any reason why everyone wouldn’t flee their expensive long distance plans and make all of their calls online.
How Do They Do That?
In all of the countries that block Skype or other online destinations, there is a manual process involved. Usually they have a firewall that restricts specific websites or data ports. Because all of your web traffic passes through their firewall before it reaches the outside world, it’s an effective block for anyone trying to get to a program or website directly.
How to Get Around It
The work around is connect to a VPN. A VPN bypasses the firewall, because after you make your initial connection (which your ISP can still deny) you have formed a private tunnel between your computer and your VPN’s server. So when you go to use Skype you’re not going through the firewall at all. You can basically do whatever you’d like.
The big caveat is that part about “after the initial connection”. Certain free VPNs have become so popular that they too have been blocked. And if you can’t connect, you can’t make the private tunnel, and you’re still stuck behind the firewall. To work around this, certain VPNs will change their IP address (the number that identifies them) and it creates a cat and mouse game of how fast they can change verses how fast the telecom can block it. Sometimes you’ll have a VPN that works for a year, or a month, or just a few days. The telecoms can’t keep up, and that’s unlikely to change.
Ways to Get a VPN
There are tons of websites that offer this service for free, and my best advice is to just try out a few and see if they’ll work where you are. Things change on a daily basis, so keep switching around if you hit a roadblock.
Countries that block Skype
This list is compiled from several reports and may include a single carrier, a government based block or a limited to a certain service area. If you have updates or additions to the list, let me know. I’m sure this list will be outdated before it’s even posted, but I’d like to try to keep it as fresh as possible.
- Anguilla (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Antigua and Barbuda (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Barbados (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- British Virgin Islands (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Brazil (blocked by Brasil Telecom)
- Cayman Islands (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Dominica (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Germany (blocked by T Mobile)
- Grenada (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Jamaica (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Kuwait (blocked by Qualitynet)*
- Montserrat (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- North Korea
- Oman (blocked by Omantel)*
- Pakistan (blocked by Cybernet, PCCW, PTA, PIE, Flag Telecom)
- Qatar (blocked by Qtel)*
- Saint Lucia (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Singapore (blocked by Singtel)
- St. Kitts and Nevis (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Trinidad and Tobago (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- Turks and Caicos (blocked by Cable & Wireless, aka LIME)
- UAE, Dubai (blocked by Etisalat)*
*May allow computer-to-computer calls (unconfirmed by specific telecom).
Places to Watch
India (Intelligence officials asked the government to block Skype 10/2009)
Why We Should Care
It’s a dangerous precedence. It’s about money, which a powerful motivator. If other countries see that the attempts by telecoms to restrict access to VOIP services like Skype massively backfires when they are unable to stem the flow of traffic via VPNs, then that’s a good thing. As I was researching this article, I found people aren’t talking about this. Even at Skype.com they only acknowledge that UAE has a block on their service. It’s the quiet the scares me.
pic: Ian Lloyd