OFCOM - VoIP Regulation
Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services.
The folllowing extracts are taken from their sections on Regulating VoIP Services and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Services: FAQs.
Regulating VoIP Services - Plain English Summary
A summary of our consultation
We (Ofcom) are the independent regulator of television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services in the UK.
This consultation document sets out our proposed approach to regulating voice services as a result of new technological developments. In particular, it looks at how we should regulate different types of Voice over Internet Protocol services (VoIP services) to make sure customers' interests are protected as far as possible. This booklet gives you a summary of how we are planning to regulate VoIP services. You'll find the full consultation document on our website at www.ofcom.org.uk.
Traditional phone services have existed for over 100 years. However, changes are taking place that could significantly affect the way services are provided in the future. In particular, voice services using the 'Voice over Internet Protocol' (VoIP) change the way voice services are delivered. These services normally use a broadband connection to provide voice calls using VoIP technology through a personal computer (PC) with a handset or headset, or a special adaptor connected to a traditional phone handset. VoIP services could benefit customers greatly by reducing the cost of delivering existing services, encouraging new services and increasing competition.
When technologies change, we would normally expect customers to benefit most when:
- new technology can be introduced quickly;
- regulations do not prevent new services from being offered; and
- there is fair competition between old and new technologies and services.
It is also important that as technology develops, we review measures to protect customers so that the measures continue to be fully effective.
In response to early developments in VoIP services and discussions with stakeholders (such as network operators and customers), we published a consultation document called 'New Voice Services: A consultation and interim guidance' on 6 September 2004 (the '2004 consultation'). That document set out our proposals to help make sure that we are meeting customers' interests. The proposals reflected both the limits of relevant European Union directives and the fact that VoIP services were still relatively new.
Since September 2004, there have been a number of further developments which mean we need to reassess our previous proposals to make sure we achieve our aims for VoIP services.
The full consultation document sets out our new approach to regulating VoIP services to encourage the continued future development of VoIP services and make sure we continue to meet customers' interests.
Our main proposals
The consultation will be relevant to all providers of VoIP services (whether or not they provide 'publicly available telephone services', known simply as PATS). It is not really aimed at operators using next-generation networks (NGNs), although some issues may be relevant. However, the consultation document discusses other conditions which providers must meet, mainly to protect customers' interests (including transferring phone numbers). It will also be of interest to customers of voice services and operators who provide public voice services using other technology.
This document discusses a number of proposals and makes statements on a number of areas of regulating voice services. Here are the main proposals.
- To end our interim forbearance policy for VoIP services which we introduced in the 2004 consultation. This policy allowed VoIP services to offer access to emergency services ('999 access') without having to meet other regulatory requirements associated with being classed as a publicly available telephony services (PATS) provider. We are ending it to make sure we meet our duties under the relevant European Union directives.
- To withdraw the Essential Requirements Guidelines (which set out how to maintain reliable networks), because they are not flexible enough to cope with the development of new VoIP services.
- To set guidelines on how we would investigate possible cases of VoIP providers not meeting the duties, to make sure that VoIP operators who provide 999 access better understand their duties and to increase the incentives for them offering 999 access.
- To end our policy on transferring phone numbers where the interim forbearance policy applies (as introduced in the 2004 consultation).
- To amend condition 18 of the general conditions under section 45 of the Communications Act 2003, to make it clear when customers can transfer their existing phone number (known as 'number portability').
- To develop a code setting out information that certain providers of voice services must offer their customers so that they are aware of what services, including VoIP, are not able to do.
- To make this code compulsory for all relevant communications providers.
- To enforce, monitor and review this policy so that providers follow this policy as the market and technology develop. This will mean we are fully aware of the situation in case regulations need to be suitably adapted (particularly to make sure 999 services are widely available).
The consultation also highlights other relevant proposals and consultations that we have recently carried out, or are doing now, that may be relevant to VoIP services.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Services: FAQs
What should consumers ask about before signing up for a VoIP service?
Consumers should check the prices of different services carefully. In addition, some VoIP services might 'look and feel' like traditional telephone services but may not offer (in the same way or to the same standard) all the features consumers have come to expect from their traditional telephone service.
If you are considering VoIP, ask the provider to explain what their service can and cannot do, before you subscribe. Some relevant questions you may want to ask the VoIP provider might include:
- does the VoIP provider offers access to the emergency services, i.e. 999/112 calls?
- does the VoIP service depend on your power supply? In particular, does the provider offer back-up power in case of power cuts?
- if there is a problem with your broadband connection, will the VoIP provider offer a back up to make calls via a traditional (PSTN) telephone connection?
- if you call the emergency services, will they automatically know where you are calling from?
- what other features such as directory assistance, directory listings and access to the operator, do the VoIP provider offer?
- will you be able to keep your telephone number if you later decide to transfer your services to another provider in the future?
What is Ofcom doing to ensure consumers get the information they need?
Ofcom is proposing to introduce a mandatory code which requires VoIP service providers to give consumers important information about elements of the service that are different to traditional telephone services. The particular areas include:
- overall service reliability;
- whether access to emergency calls is offered;
- reliability of access to emergency calls;
- whether location information is provided to the emergency services;
- ability to keep your telephone number;
- other information such as directory assistance, directory listing and access to the operator.
How will Ofcom enforce a requirement for VoIP providers to comply with a consumer information code?
Ofcom is very keen to achieve a high level of compliance with the proposed consumer information code. Ofcom is plans take an active approach to increase understanding of the obligations, promote and monitor compliance and, if necessary, take enforcement action.
Ofcom is writing to industry to inform providers of the proposed regulation particularly concerning the consumer information code. Also, over the coming months, Ofcom will meet with providers to discuss how they intend to comply with the code.
Subject to responses to the consultation on Ofcom's proposals, Ofcom would expect the code will come into force in the summer of 2006. Ofcom would then start a 'mystery shopping' exercise by purchasing certain VoIP services from various providers to ascertain whether they comply with the code. If they are not complying with the code, Ofcom may instigate enforcement proceedings under the Communications Act 2003.
What are the rules on offering access to emergency services?
If VoIP service providers offer access to emergency services, then they are required to meet certain requirements about this service. In particular, they have to (depending on the characteristics of the service) take certain steps to ensure that their services are reliable and provide location information to the emergency services.
Further information can be found on VoIP Services by visiting their website www.ofcom.co.uk
© Ofcom copyright 2004.