The UK's telecoms regulator is considering issuing ranges of telephone numbers to voice and video services carried over the Internet.
Oftel will launch a consultation paper on the future of the 05 prefix later this month, and will consider dedicating it to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone numbers. "Oftel is also considering introducing a new telephone number range so that calls that are carried using Internet technology can easily be identified," said David Edmonds, Oftel's director general.
Edmonds' statement was contained in a guidance document aimed at companies that are considering offering VoIP services. According to Edmonds, service providers increasingly showing interest in VoIP services. VoIP can help telcos to make significant cost savings, and to offer services such as video conferencing.
The guidance document, published on Tuesday, "should encourage greater availability of Internet telephony services," said Edmonds.
Following last year's reorganisation of the UK's telephone number system, Oftel now has to decide what to do with the 05 prefix. One suggestion is that it could be dedicated to VoIP services. "This would let people know that they can make a voice over IP call to other people with the same technology, and would also benefit operators," explained an Oftel spokeswoman.
Oftel has warned that any company planning to build an "extensive network" in order to operate a VoIP service is likely to need a telecommunications licence from the government.
With VoIP, a voice call is carried across the Internet as packets of data. This can be significantly cheaper than using the public telephone system. For example, an international VoIP call only costs the price of the local phone calls - or Internet connections - at either end, because the call is carried on the Net for most of the distance.
The downside is that VoIP calls are often lower in quality than traditional voice calls. Instead of enjoying a fixed connection, with VoIP the conversation is packaged up into chunks of data that are compressed and sent across the Internet. Although the bandwidth per call can be higher than for ordinary voice dial-up, packets are often delayed in transit making calls break up and stutter: it is possible to have guaranteed quality-of-service Internet connections that avoid this, and making such services available via ordinary phone numbers may provide a way of paying for these calls.
VoIP has often been perceived as a massive threat to traditional telecoms companies, as it could destroy the profits they make from voice calls. Back in 2000, BT acknowledged that the future of telephone calls was online when it launched its first commercial voice-over-IP service.