Due to the global nature of voice over IP, governments worldwide are eagerly seeking ways to fit the fledgling technology into existing regulatory frameworks.
The European Commission is working toward a set of recommendations to be issued later this year. The commission recently received feedback from groups around the world on a short set of proposals it offered on VOIP providers regulatory obligations. Taking a very light touch, the commission proposed mostly voluntary guidelines, focusing on promoting an informed base of users.
Unlike the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, the EC does not have direct authority over the regions carriers, dealing instead directly with member governments.
In Europe, as in the United States, some classes of VOIP are considered subject to regulation today and others are not. Communications between two IP interfaces, using a PC-based application, does not fall under Europes regulatory framework, just as Pulver.coms Free World Dialup was deemed earlier this year to fall outside the FCCs jurisdiction. However, VOIP services that connect to the public telephone network do fall under Europes regulations, just as the FCC determined that AT&T Corp.s VOIP service is not exempt from FCC rules.
Better defining VOIP within the existing regulatory framework is the first hurdle facing regulators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. While seemingly academic, the matter will have a significant impact on both providers and end users, said Axel Spies, European attorney at the law firm of Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman LLP, in Washington.
Depending on how they are classified, new VOIP providers may or may not be part of the number portability system, making them more or less attractive to businesses that want to retain their phone numbers when switching providers.
For competitive carriers in both regions, the most important question in the VOIP debate—and the most important question in any telecommunications regulation debate—is how to ensure that the once-monopolistic local connections are open to rivals. According to Spies, who represents the German competitive carriers association, the former monopolistic PTT (Post Telegraph and Telephone) providers of Europe control the vast majority of broadband lines in the region. Imposing mandates on new entrants would be premature, but maintaining obligations for the owners of the underlying infrastructure, particularly involving the last mile, is imperative, Spies said.
The CompTel ASCENT (Association of Communication Enterprises) alliance in Washington, which represents AT&T Corp., MCI Inc., Global Crossing Ltd. and dozens of other competitive carriers, is pressing the EC to ensure reasonable access to incumbent carriers last-mile facilities. In particular, the group is urging the commission to sway member countries to make sure that there is no transfer of market power by incumbents from their leased-line and DSL markets to the VOIP sector.
"Our fear in Europe is the same as we have here. [Incumbent local exchange carriers] are all rolling out their own VOIP services," said Stephen Trotman, senior vice president for programs and education at CompTel ASCENT, in Washington. "As the incumbents bundle these services, [regulators should] take a light touch on the applications but regulate the underlying transport."
Regulators in Europe and the United States are considering whether to require VOIP carriers to provide emergency calling, and the EC proposed that VOIP providers whose services include connecting to the public telephone network must inform users of whether emergency calling is included.
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