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VoIP industry fears over-regulation

Internet telephony trade body suggests Ofcom may drive VoIP providers out of the UK with unnecessary requirements

Ofcom's upcoming VoIP regulation is being anxiously awaited by the internet telephony industry, many of whom worry that the regulator will be too heavy-handed.

Consultation for the proposed regulation ended in May and the rules themselves were supposed to have appeared in August, but seem to have been hit by a delay of at least three months. An announcement by Ofcom on the matter is expected later this month.

However, VoIP operators are extremely apprehensive about Ofcom's proposals, which would ban operators from offering 999 access to emergency services if they do not conform to a list of requirements for publicly available telephone services, or PATS.

The rules require an operator to provide emergency calls at no charge, ensure network reliability and resilience even in case of disasters, provide operator assistance and directory enquiries, publish clear and up-to-date prices and terms and conditions, provide itemised billing and offer special measures for disabled users such as text relay services.

Because VoIP services rely on a PC or VoIP handset, they can't be used in the event of a power cut — unlike traditional wired PATS telephones. This makes it harder for them to match the provision on network reliability and resiliance. Banning VoIP operators from offering 999 access at all would reduce the chances of VoIP users not knowing that they don't have guaranteed access to the emergency services.

According to Eli Katz, the co-founder and chairman of the Internet Telephony Services Providers Association (ITSPA), providers believe this long list of requirements will act against consumer protection. Katz argues that it wouldn't make sense to ban VoIP operators from offering 999 access altogether.

"We believe that red tape is going to put lives at risk," Katz told ZDNet UK on Friday. "The net impact on consumers is that this provides a very strong disincentive to IP communications service providers from enabling 999 services. We've had a lot of dialogue with various emergency services bodies and ACPO [the Association of Chief Police Officers], and it would seem to be the obvious statement that the more you can enable 999 service and access to it, the more it is in the interest of consumers."

Katz suggested the PATS requirement to provide directory enquiries services was "completely extraneous" and irrelevant to the provision of 999 access. He also claimed that it was "almost an incentive to operate outside of the UK", as Ofcom would be unable to enforce such terms on operators not based in this country.

Calling for effective self-regulation in the VoIP arena, Katz said ITSPA had launched its own industry code of practice several years ago, recognising that "it is important that consumers be made fully aware of the type of service they're signing up to".

"On early indications of the proposed regulations, it is essentially full regulation in its most prescriptive detail possible, and that's obviously of great concern to the industry. It is, once again, an indication that it may be better not to operate in the UK and that's not in the interest of UK consumers and the economy," Katz said, adding that the UK was " far behind many countries in the world" in IP communications and would "continue to be a backwater" if such regulations came to pass.

Katz also said Ofcom wanted to force non-PATS "softphone" VoIP clients to prominently advertise that they did not offer 999 access, and claimed that no other country "allows internet telephony to allow this level of prescriptive interference".

On the subject of number portability — the ability to transfer your geographically-based phone number from the old PSTN network to a VoIP provider — Katz suggested that the process could be made "more efficient and less costly" if the UK implemented a central database of VoIP providers and customers. "We have highlighted how vital it is for the new industry to enable full number portability. Until those new systems are in place, it will remain a challenge," he added.

Number portability to VoIP providers is currently subject to an "interim policy", which lets the incumbent operator restrict the move if the VoIP provider does not meet the PATS requirements.