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999 concerns prompts regulation of internet phone services

hamba

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999 concerns prompts regulation of internet phone services

Telecoms watchdog Ofcom yesterday unveiled plans to regulate the use of the internet to make phone calls for the first time, sparking fears that heavy handed regulation could kill off the embryonic industry in the UK.

The growth of broadband internet has led to a boom in people using the web to make cheap or free calls using Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) technology. More than 3 million consumers in the UK are expected to be using VoIP by the end of the year.

The emergency services, however, have become increasingly concerned about the ability of VoIP users to make 999 calls. As the technology relies upon a broadband connection, if that connection is lost, a user may be unable to make calls.

From June, Ofcom wants all VoIP providers to specify whether they provide 999 services. But providers who say they can offer emergency calls will become subject to strict European laws governing service availability, even though the broadband connection is often provided by a different company. The move is likely to result in many VoIP providers opting out of offering 999 calls altogether.

Trefor Davies, Technology Director at Timico, which provides telecoms services including VoIP for businesses, said the regulator risks hobbling an emerging industry. "What Ofcom has done is impose regulation on the VoIP industry and it is much stricter regulation that we have to deal with than any other emerging technology has ever had to cope with," he said.

The mobile phone industry does not have to guarantee that its customers can always make 999 calls because of network black spots or batteries running down.

Kerry Ritz, UK managing director of VoIP provider Vonage, said Ofcom's rules could scupper the chances of British start-ups in one of the fastest growing online industries. "There are companies in the UK looking at innovative services and they may look at this and say it looks pretty onerous," he warned.

He added that the Ofcom rules only cover UK-based VoIP providers and by its very global nature the internet allows for cross-border services.

BT, which offers VoIP calls with its standard network services, said it agreed that consumers should have good quality information about VoIP but "we would however caution against over-regulating what is still a relatively young industry."









Richard Wray
Friday March 30, 2007
Guardian Unlimited
Guardian News and Media Limited 2007