Wednesday, April 18, 2007

UK OFCOM - Regulation of VoIP Services 

I have to apologize, this is a bit late, but I was on vacation. UK Ofcom released on 29 March 2007 the Regulation of VoIP Services (Statement and publication of statutory notifications under section 48(1) of the Communications Act 2003 modifying General Conditions 14 and 18). A summary can be retrieved from Ofcoms webpage.

The ruling lays out a code of conduct with which VoIP providers must adhere. It does not take immediate steps to require emergency service (999) access. Instead, Ofcom plans to take another look at this area later this year and consult on whether, and how, emergency services calls access might be made a mandatory requirement in the VoIP world.

In addressing those objectives, Ofcom made the following two main regulatory proposals in its 2006 consultation:

  • to modify General Condition(-3-) 14 (“GC 14”) requiring providers of Public Electronic Communication Services (to the extent it comprises the conveyance of speech, music or sounds) to comply with a code of practice (i.e. the Code on the provision by Service Providers of consumer information to Domestic and Small Business Customers for the provision of Services (“the Code”); and
  • to modify the definition of a ‘Publicly Available Telephone Service’ (“PATS”) for the purposes of General Condition 18 (“GC 18”) so that only services available to the public for originating and receiving national and international calls and access to emergency services through a normal telephone number have the right to number portability under GC 18, with the only exception of Public Electronic Communications Services for only receiving calls.

Remark: The last bullet is Ofcom's trick to get out of the circular definition of PATS by declaring number portability a right and not an obligation ;-) IMO, since number portability is a no-brainer with VoIP and ENUM, this should not be linked.

In addition, the 2006 consultation set out a number of additional measures that are relevant to the application of the General Conditions of Entitlement (“GCs”) to providers of VoIP services, including:

  • the discontinuance of Ofcom’s interim forbearance policy as set out in the 2004 consultation. This policy meant that Ofcom would forbear from enforcing obligations in the GCs applying to providers of PATS, so as to reduce any potential disincentive for VoIP providers offering access to emergency services to their customers;
  • the withdrawal of the Essential Requirement Guidelines (and instead applying the ‘reasonably practicable’ test set out in General Condition 3 (“GC 3”) on a case-by-case basis); and
  • the publication of draft guidance on the application of PATS obligations in the GCs to VoIP service providers to ensure that they meet their obligations.

The framework also explains Ofcom's current thinking on other VoIP related issues including naked DSL, net neutrality, approach to regulation of nomadic services and the European Framework Review.

Specifically, 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 itemization 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.

Remark: This is ok, I just wonder if the second bullet is now also required for mobile phones.

If consumers choose to take up a service that does not offer access to emergency services or which depends on an external power supply, the code also requires VoIP providers to:

- secure the customer's positive acknowledgement of this at point of sale (by checking a box, for example);
- label the capability of the service, either in the form of a physical label for equipment or via information on the computer screen; and
- play an announcement each time a call to emergency services is attempted, reminding the caller that access is unavailable.

Recognizing that VoIP services have the potential to offer significant new benefits to consumers, including more competition and choice, lower prices and new services such as second lines and nomadic services, my first read suggests to me that Ofcom tried to strike a workable balance between promoting innovation and protecting traditional social goods.

By and large, I prefer Ofcoms's approach to VoIP to what I have seen in many other countries.

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