UK Agency Assigns Special VOIP Area Code

The Office of Communications, Britain's telecom regulator, is setting aside an area code specifically for VOIP calls.

The United Kingdom telecommunications industry regulator on Tuesday unveiled its plans for Internet telephony, which include setting aside a phone area code specifically for VOIP calls.

In a prepared statement, Stephen Carter, U.K. Office of Communications chief executive sounded very much like a U.S. Federal Communications Commision administrator by saying that since broadband services are a new and emerging market, "our first task as regulator is to keep out of the way."

However, the British office has taken a more decisive role in setting out numbering policy. It has officially allowed VOIP providers to use U.K. area codes, allowing subscribers to keep their local numbers when switching to VOIP services. It has also set aside an IP-only area code, 056, that can be used anywhere in the country.

"Some people would say that that creates a ghetto," said one telecom engineer and telephone numbering specialist, who asked not to be identified. He suggests that an area code assigned exclusively to VOIP may result in phone numbers that are looked upon as somehow second-class.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about the debate over whether the federal government should share any VOIP regulation authority with the states.

The telephone numbering policy in Britain and much of Europe differs from North Americas in that European numbers refer to specific services and providers. While Ofcom appears to be offering number portability, the specialist explained that it is really a forwarding of ported-number calls from British Telecoms own switches.

"No incumbent likes local number portability," he said, since it loosens the ties between the subscriber and service provider. But trunks are needlessly tied up in the call-forwarding scheme BT uses to route the calls of defected subscribers. The new VOIP-only area code would be more trunk-efficient, saving that forwarding step.

In contrast the centralized "flat name space" structure of the North American Numbering Plan database has separated geography and type of service (as well as the provider) from actual numbers, the VOIP specialist said.

However, most numbers still hold clues to geographic region. Area codes in North America do not indicate whether they connect to landline, wireless, or VOIP phones. Complete number portability would allow those moving from Chicago to San Francisco, for example, to keep their numbers.

"There is nothing stopping us from complete number portability now, except for the politics of legacy rate centers and the difficulties of call accounting," he said.

Ofcom is seeking public comment on other proposed VOIP measures. Britons have until Nov. 15 to express their thoughts on requiring voice-over-IP services to include 911-like capabilities and other consumer protection measures.

/zimages/1/28571.gif Check out eWEEK.coms VOIP & Telephony Center at for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.