VoIP providers will have to connect 999 calls, says regulator

Providers of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone services will have to connect calls to emergency services within an year, telecoms regulator Ofcom has ruled.

The regulator said that it has grown increasingly concerned that many VoIP services do not allow emergency services calls and has decided to act because of the growing popularity of VoIP.

All traditional landline and mobile telephones can call emergency services for free on 999 and 112 (the emergency number most used in other EU countries), and it is a condition of their operation that they do so. Ofcom said the same condition will apply to VoIP providers from 8th September next year.

"Although most users can reach for another phone to make emergency calls, a delay of seconds can result in increased harm," said an Ofcom statement announcing the change. "Given this risk, and the recent rapid growth in the use of VoIP services, we consider it’s time to act."

Some VoIP services already have emergency services calling capability, but Ofcom said that it had carried out research which discovered significant consumer confusion about whether or not VoIP phones could call emergency services. It also found that 64% of UK VoIP users were with providers that did not offer emergency calls.

It said that confusion was growing because of changes to VoIP telephony itself. "Significant developments in VoIP services and technology meant they were more likely to 'look and feel' like traditional fixed and mobile phone services and to replace those services for the mass market in the future," said Ofcom.

Ofcom has previously told operators to place stickers on equipment or on-screen labels indicating whether or not 999 calls were possible over a service.

The regulations will exclude 'click to call' functions on websites, where a user of a site can only call a limited set of numbers set by the website operators. It also excludes any service which only allows calls to international numbers.