UK industry group demands VoIP support

Telecoms firms are worried about the future of Internet telephony in Britain, and are demanding geographic numbering for VoIP lines

A group of UK telecoms operators and Internet service providers have banded together to lobby for greater support for Internet telephony in the UK.

The creation of the Internet Telephony Service Providers Association (ITSPA) was announced on Tuesday. The group hopes to persuade communications regulator Ofcom to take the measures it says are necessary to grow a vibrant market for voice over broadband services in Britain.

At present, Ofcom is conducting a consultation into how Internet telephony services should be offered and regulated. According to ITSPA, some of its initial proposals could weaken the UK's nascent voice over IP (VoIP) market.

Ofcom is proposing that VoIP phone lines should be allocated a generic numerical suffix, such as 056, rather than a geographically based suffix like 020 for London.

It also appears that VoIP services won't be classed as full telephony services because they cannot guarantee that emergency calls can always be made as the Internet isn't a completely reliable medium.

"On these two issues of geographical numbering and guaranteed access to 999, the current Ofcom opinion is not supportive of the creation of a successful voice over broadband industry in the UK," Eli Katz, ITSPA co-founder, told ZDNet UK.

Katz claims that if VoIP lines are allocated a non-geographical suffix such as 056 then it will be hard to call them from some foreign telecommunications networks, and even from some UK networks.

However, there are also considerable advantages to having a non-geographical number. For example, a user could move from London to Cardiff and keep the same number.

ITSPA plans to submit its views to Ofcom on Wednesday, the last day that Ofcom will accept submissions for its consultation.

"We look forward to the results of the consultation, which we hope will support the industry's requirements," Katz added.

It is estimated that there are around five million Internet telephony customers in Asia, and some 150,000 in the US. Britain is lagging behind, although BT has recently made a couple of interesting moves in the space by launching a VoIP product for cable companies.

It is also developing a "converged communications" product in partnership with Yahoo that will include VoIP.

Despite this, BT has not joined ITSPA.

Katz says that "no firm decision" has been made about BT's potential membership of ITSPA.

ITSPA would almost certainly gain credibility if it could add a major player such as BT to its membership. Its existing members are relatively small companies, and some don't even have fully operational Web sites yet.

For its part, BT seems quite happy to be on the sidelines.

"We're more focussed on what we're doing, which is being a pioneer of VoIP," a BT spokesman said. He added that BT is already in discussions with the relevant people across the telecoms industry regarding the future of Internet telephony in the UK.

ITSPA is currently made up of Call UK, ET Phones, Gossiptel, Gradwell dot com, Idesk, Imass Telecom, Intervivo, Magrathea, Mistral Internet, Speak2World, Telappliant, Telco Global and T-Strategy.