Regulating VoIP in Britain: industry responds

A trade body for the UK's internet telephony market has urged Ofcom to resist imposing excessive regulation on the fledgling industry. If regulations are imposed, they must be enforceable on overseas rivals, says the group.

Yesterday's comments, from the Internet Telephony Service Providers' Association (ITSPA), were made in response to the telecoms watchdog's February consultation on regulating the market for Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, services, in the UK.

ITSPA has 50 members including Centrica, AOL, freetalk, Spiritel, Tesco and Cisco. It points out that VoIP has flourished in the UK over the past two years under the existing regulatory principles – and a heavy hand is unnecessary.

Ofcom has proposed a new code for VoIP service providers to ensure customers are given important information about service capability. ITSPA has its own Code of Practice that addresses the need to provide information.

Ofcom also wants to include information about reliability, whether access to emergency calls is offered, and the reliability of such access, the portability of telephone numbers and whether information such as directory listing is offered. Ofcom is updating its guidance to encourage VoIP providers to offer access to 999 emergency services and to help them comply with existing regulation of voice services, including requirements for Publicly Available Telephone Services (PATS).

ITSPA members have some concerns, however. While it agrees with the need to ensure maximum access to emergency services in the UK, ITSPA members are concerned that Ofcom’s proposals "will conversely raise the barriers to the provision of emergency access by VoIP providers."

It points out that VoIP has already proven to be a vital third means of communication (in addition to mobile and traditional fixed line networks). For instance, after the London bombings on 7th July 2005, many citizens found that the only means of communicating with friends and relatives was via VoIP, as the number of calls being made overwhelmed mobile networks. ITSPA is keen to ensure that this public benefit can be further extended.

ITSPA's response to Ofcom’s consultation highlights the following key issues:

ITSPA believes in the need to ensure maximum access to emergency services and that VoIP services offer a vital third means of access (along with traditional fixed line and mobile).

Ofcom must ensure that regulation is enforceable on extraterritorial service providers, otherwise UK VoIP providers could be at a competitive disadvantage, yet UK consumers would not be offered the same protection from unscrupulous offshore service providers.

In the interest of consumers and businesses, number portability should be made as easy and transparent as possible: regulatory definitions of services are irrelevant to the end user.

The proposals should be proportionate to all voice service providers and Ofcom should not implement excessive regulation on an industry that hasn't fully matured.

ITSPA believes that its self-regulatory initiatives, which are already in place, ensure consumers are properly and appropriately informed about VoIP services. Ofcom should consider these initiatives before other regulatory proposals are implemented.