How functional and reliable should an Internet telephony service be? This is the tricky question that, for all our sakes, Ofcom can't afford to get wrong.
The regulator won plaudits from the UK telecoms industry on Monday when it ruled that VoIP operators can use geographic numbering (such as 020 for London-based customers), as well as a new 056 prefix of their very own. But now Ofcom needs to decide whether Internet telephony services should comply with the same standards as existing telephony services.
VoIP providers are united in opposing this. They claim that providing services like itemised billing and extra support for customers with disabilities would kill off the emerging VoIP market. They also point out that it is unfair to expect VoIP networks to be resilient enough to cope with disaster, as a power cut will take a user's PC -- and therefore their VoIP connection -- down.
The VoIP providers' trump card is that today's potential VoIP customers need to keep a standard phone line in order to get a broadband link to run VoIP over. This is true, but it's also short-sighted.
Wouldn't it be great if consumers could just buy an ADSL connection for their BT phone line without having to also pay for BT's PSTN (public switched telephone network) phone service? It's not in BT's interest to offer such a service, but if VoIP was a true alternative to the BT fixed-line phone service then the demand could force BT to stop bundling voice and data in this way. What a boost to competition that would be.
And that could be the future of Internet telephony -- putting PSTN back in the 20th century where it belongs. VoIP is not ready to take on this task yet, but nor is it a toy that can be offered by anyone at any level of service.
When chief executive Stephen Carter says that "our first task as regulator is to keep out of the way", he needs to remember that regulation is about making tough choices that upset vested interests for the greater good.
Ofcom must not allow VoIP providers to get away with ropey services just because they're using the Internet. We need to see minimum standards set and, as the market develops, these standards must move toward those for PSTN if VoIP is to reach its potential.