VoIP industry seeks self-regulation

Key telecommunications industry groups are frustrated with the federal government's failure to set guidelines for the fledgling Voice over Internet Protocol industry and have resorted to taking matters into their own hands. "DCITA has dropped the ball," Service Providers' Association chairman John Kranenburg told a Sydney conference last week, criticising the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for not moving sooner to regulate VoIP players.

Key telecommunications industry groups are frustrated with the federal government's failure to set guidelines for the fledgling Voice over Internet Protocol industry and have resorted to taking matters into their own hands.

"DCITA has dropped the ball," Service Providers' Association chairman John Kranenburg told a Sydney conference last week, criticising the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for not moving sooner to regulate VoIP players.

"The opportunity has been lost [to provide a regulatory framework]," he said.

Shara Evans, managing director of telecoms analysis firm Telsyte, told participants that of the 30 mass-market VoIP players in Australia, only 18 were covered by the carriers' or telecommunications ombudsmen regulatory regimes, leaving the rest unregulated.

"I'm quite sure that a number of those people are going to give the industry a bad name," said Kranenburg.

Margaret Fleming, program manager with the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF), said a lack of government movement on the issue has prompted its VoIP working group to ponder regulatory issues more actively.

The department was not immediately available to comment on VoIP regulations.

New hope?
While the ACIF has released two public fact sheets about VoIP services -- aimed separately at consumers and service providers -- the body's influence with regulators may come under threat from a smaller trade association composed specifically of VoIP players.

Since January, the Sydney-based Australian Voice over IP Association (AVoIPA) has been trying to attract VoIP players. Although the organisation only has 10 members, it has attracted high-profile players like Telstra, Internode and Intel to some of its open forums.

"We've had many conversations with the bigger players," the association's executive director Matt Everitt told ZDNet Australia. "Intel were very favourable to what we were trying to do. There's certainly been a strong reaction to [the formation of the association]".

The rationale for starting AVoIPA was to get the industry to come together and work closely with government bodies on key issues, he said, with the ultimate vision of keeping the VoIP industry a self-regulating environment.

Michael Carew, chief executive of VoIP vendor Freshtel, is said to be the driving force behind the organisation's establishment. Other members include ISP wholesaler Wholesale Communications Group, which Freshtel has a business relationship with.

While AVoIPA is currently governed by a self-appointed board chaired by Carew, Everitt said a new and more representative delegation would be appointed in the next two weeks.

One of the most visible steps the group has taken to solidify its place in the crowded spectrum of telco trade associations is to release a draft mandatory code of practice for members. Sydney lawyer Matthew Hall, a partner at Schwab Attorneys, is responsible for the blueprint.

The code aims to, among other things, make VoIP customers aware of the difference between Internet-based and normal telephony services, restrict bulk unsolicited voice calls and stop customer contracts from being misleading. While it only covers consumers, it will eventually address the requirements of services to businesses.

AVoIPA has an affiliation with its counterpart in the UK, the Internet Telephony Services Providers' Association, which has around 35 members including large companies like America Online. Carew recently spent time with the organisation, swapping tales of VoIP regulation.

Although Kranenburg of the Service Providers' Association believes AVoIPA's traction could be limited due to its dependence on Freshtel, Everitt is keen to work in a "symbiotic relationship" with other associations like ACIF.

"It's not about poaching [members]," Everitt said, "it's about coming up with a solution."

Everitt acknowledged there would always be less reputable players, or "cowboys", in any industry, but expressed his desire that AVoIPA would attract "the more professional companies that want to build a serious business, and understand the importance of brand, and delivering a good product".

He said there are approximately 50 VoIP players in Australia.

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