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Internet telephony rules still up in the air

IT Priorities Conference: Companies such as Cable & Wireless and Skype say that VoIP's time has come, but regulators need to decide how they will deal with this
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Telecommunications regulators worldwide are still wrestling with the tricky problem of how to regulate Internet telephony services, which is leaving voice over IP (VoIP) service providers somewhat in the dark.

Paul Clarke, technical director of Cable & Wireless, told an audience of technology professionals at the ZDNet IT Priorities Conference in London on Tuesday that regulators are keen to facilitate next-generation services such as VoIP.

But the likes of Ofcom must be prepared to take a radically different approach to that used in the past when overseeing the traditional incumbent telcos and their PSTN networks.

"The regulators are trying to bring about a regime that has new opportunities for technologies such as voice over IP," said Clarke.

"But the technology is ahead of the regulators, and there's not a clear picture for the operators as to exactly what regulatory framework they will have to work under."

Niklas Zennstrom, chief executive of Skype, said that his company has been speaking with regulators in Europe, America and Asia.

"They all have the same approach: that they should only regulate if they have to," Zennstrom said.

A key issue for VoIP operators is whether they will have to comply with the same service standards as PSTN networks, including giving guaranteed access to emergency numbers. Because a PC, unlike a standard phone line, does not have a separate power supply VoIP services will not work during a power cut.

This means VoIP providers can't guarantee that users can always dial 999.

According to Roger Darlington, a member of the Ofcom consumer panel who attended the IT Priorities conference, VoIP providers must educate users about the differences between Internet telephony and PSTN.

"Consumers they have developed certain expectations of their telephony service over the last century, and a lot of VoIP services won't carry a lot of these characteristics," Darlington told the conference.

"It's not too bad for Skype, but it matters a lot for services that look and feel like a traditional phone service."

In response, Nick Watson, director of operations at Cisco, insisted that IP networks could offer greater reliability than existing telephone networks.

In a show of hands, around a quarter of IT professionals attending the conference indicated their company had already deployed VoIP, with only a couple saying they had experienced any problems.

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