Ofcom Lays Down the Rules for VoIP

U.K. regulator Ofcom has handed down its first set of rules for VoIP telephony – what it is calling a “code of practice” – stopping just short of demanding that VoIP providers support emergency calls, but it said that issue will be considered later this year.

Among other things the new rules demand that VoIP providers, at the point of sale, must inform consumers of limitations such as an inability to call emergency numbers or that that the phone will go dead during power outage. The rules apply to “softphone” VoIP calls from PCs, such as those between Skype and landline users (via the SkypeOut service), as well as to calls using broadband-connected VoIP adapters and standard phones.

Ofcom said that “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 itemisation 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.”

In cases where emergency service calls are not available providers are being required the get consumer’s positive written acknowledgement that they have been so informed. Ofcom suggested that getting them to check off a box on their service order could have that effect. VoIP providers also have to put stickers on VoIP phones warning users they can’t make emergency calls and, should they try, have a recorded announcement to that effect. For softphones the warnings have to appear on the PC screen. Similar rules cover the issue of loss of service in a power outage.

Ofcoms’ regulations hardly come as a surprise to the VoIP community. VoIP service providers had been fighting for years against Ofcom establishing any rules, a battle they have now lost. Ofcom began considering VoIP rules as far back as September 2004, the regulator noted in its ruling. A little over a year ago, in Feb. 2006, it put forth its proposed rules. Some 50 comments were filed about the proposal, Ofcom noted.

It also noted that many of those “expressed concern that a lack of access to emergency services via VoIP services might result in consumer detriment.” As a result, it said, “Ofcom intends to consult later this year on whether, and if so how, certain VoIP services might be required to offer access to emergency services.”

While imposing its first regulations on VoIP, Ofcom also very carefully indicated its general approval of the emergence of the technology.