S'pore opens up IP telephony market

The government wants to increase competition and reduce communications costs, but industry players say the new policy will more likely result in better customer service.

SINGAPORE--In a move to further liberalize the nation's telecommunications market, the government has announced plans to issue new 8-digit numbers to operators offering voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) will issue the new numbers and licenses for the provision of IP telephony services in the country, according to Dr Lee Boon Yang, Singapore's minister for information, communication and the arts, during his opening address at CommunicAsia 2005 this morning.

"We expect growth in IP telephony to bring about reduced costs in providing telephone services, and in turn, translate to lower prices and more service choices for businesses and consumers alike," Lee said.

Under the new framework, local VoIP numbers will start with the number '3'. Fixed-line numbers in the country, also 8-digit long, are prefixed with the number '6'. But unlike the provision of fixed-line numbers, no quality of service (QoS) requirements will be imposed on IP telephony services, noted Aileen Chia, IDA's director of competition and market access policy.

For instance, there will be no mandatory obligations for VoIP providers to ensure that their customers will be able to place emergency calls via the '3' phone numbers, she said. In addition, providers will neither be required to provide directory enquiry or printed directory services, nor obliged to offer number portability.

However, service providers must inform their subscribers of these limitations when they sign up for the VoIP services, Chia added. Existing holders of IDA's facilities- and services-based operator licenses need not reapply for new licenses to provide VoIP services, she said.

Leong Keng Thai, IDA's deputy chief executive and director-general (telecoms), said these QoS components are not made compulsory so as not to "overly burden" and discourage new players from offering VoIP as a service in Singapore. But the government will continue to monitor the market as it develops, and implement changes whenever necessary, he said.

In the United States, support for emergency services was a key source of contention with regards to the provision of VoIP calls.

The primary objective of Singapore's new framework is to provide users more choice, Leong said. This would in turn reduce call charges, particularly overseas calls, he added.

Better customer service
But industry players note that the new policy will more likely enhance user experience, rather than lower phone charges.

"It will enable us to provide it as a value-added service but it is probably not going to be a significantly new revenue stream," said Alex Tan, director of Qala Singapore which offers products such as VoIP systems and services.

Khaw Kheng Joo, CEO of MediaRing, does not expect the move to have a huge impact on prices. He told ZDNet Asia that the company's VoIP call prices are "already very competitive". The Singapore-owned company offers a range of Internet telephony products and services including IP phones.

But Khaw welcomes the new policy as MediaRing will now be able to obtain VoIP numbers directly from IDA rather than the country's two carriers--StarHub and SingTel--and provide its customers with one unique number.

"Currently, we issue pseudo numbers to customers who buy our IP phones so their friends in Singapore can call them via this number," Khaw explained. "But your friend in Hong Kong, for example, will not be able to contact you through the pseudo number because it is not recognized globally as a Singapore number. They will need to call you either on your mobile phone or traditional fixed-line number."

The new '3' phone numbers will resolve this problem, because they will be based on an international standard and recognized by countries worldwide, he said. Users will be contactable using this one number, from anywhere in the world.

Service providers will, however, need to have established interconnect agreements with operators in other countries, in order to patch VoIP calls made to and from people located outside Singapore.

Although current VoIP traffic in Singapore is not huge, Leong said, the government sees a growing demand for IP telephony services and wants to ensure the island-state stays ahead of the game.

And while he acknowledged that there are already several service providers in the market offering low-cost VoIP-based IDD services for home users, he stressed the need for the government to establish the new guidelines. Service providers that offer VoIP-based IDD call services in Singapore currently include SingTel, MobileOne, Zone 1511 and Phoenix Communications.

Singapore must "embrace" the technology early and clearly "articulate" the framework and policies necessary for this market space to develop, he said. According to Chia, a handful of service providers including Vonage and AT&T, are currently running trials on the new VoIP '3' numbers.

Khaw noted that he is now keen to initiate a dialog with IDA officials on how to address issues related to the provision of emergency call services for the new VoIP numbers. He added that this problem is "not impossible" to resolve, referring to the US government's recent attempt to implement a solution.