Ofcom, the UK regulator comes out with rules for VoIP telephony

U.K. regulator Ofcom has handed down its first set of rules for VoIP telephony - what it is calling a "code of practice" . The rules apply to "softphone" VoIP calls from PCs, such as those between Skype and landline users (via the SkypeOut service), as well as to calls using broadband-connected VoIP adapters and standard phones. In addition to Skype, which is thought to be as wildly popular in the U.K. as it is in most of Europe, major VoIP players in the U.K. include everyone from pure VoIP player Vonage to incumbent BT and major challengers such as France Telecom's Orange and Tesco.

Ofcom said that "the new code of practice requires VoIP providers to make clear:
>>Whether or not the service includes access to emergency services;
>>The extent to which the service depends on the user's home power supply;
>>Whether directory assistance, directory listings, access to the operator or the itemisation of calls are available; and
>>Whether consumers will be able to keep their telephone number if they choose to switch providers at a later date."
In cases where emergency service calls are not available - which in the U.K. is believed to me the vast majority of VoIP service - providers are being required the get consumer's positive written acknowledgement that they have been so informed. Ofcom suggested that getting them to check off a box on their service order could have that effect. VoIP providers also have to put stickers on VoIP phones warning users they can't make emergency calls and, should they try, have a recorded announcement to that effect. For softphones the warnings have to appear on the PC screen. Similar rules cover the issue of loss of service in a power outage.

Ofcoms' regulations hardly come as a surprise to the VoIP community. VoIP service providers had been fighting for years against Ofcom establishing any rules, a battle they have now lost. Ofcom began considering VoIP rules as far back as September 2004, the regulator noted in its ruling. A little over a year ago, in Feb. 2006, the it put forth its proposed rules.

While imposing its first regulations on VoIP, Ofcom also very carefully indicated its general approval of the emergence of the technology.
"VoIP services offer consumers the prospect of cheaper calls - especially for calls from one VoIP service to another - and valuable new services such as call handling and unified messaging," Ofcom wrote in its ruling announcement. "Over the last twelve months a range of new VoIP services have been launched and demand continues to grow."

The regulator also cited industry estimates that, by the end of this year, there will be some 3 million VoIP users in the U.K. That estimate may be quite low, and may not include softphone users such as those on Skype and Microsoft Messenger. In January BT put out a statement bragging of its one millionth VoIP customer, for instance, saying it hit the target a half a year earlier than it had expected.

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