This evening, the European Commission has published an important document on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), without a real title, and described as "issued for information and consultation".
The document makes a number of statements, for instance on issues surrounding:
- the authorisation regime (and exceptions to it)
- consumer protection
- emergency calls
- privacy and lawful interception
- interconnection and interoperability
- numbering and number portability
and invites comments from interested parties, by 31 August 2004.
The European Commission expresses its preparedness to take public comments into account, and states that the document will be adapted as necessary and re-issued in the form of (non-binding) Guidelines.
After a first reading this evening, the following elements immediately stand out:
1) Types of VoIP - unregulated categories: A VoIP offering that comprises provision of a product (e.g. a software application to be run on a personal computer), with no ongoing provision of a service, is not considered to fall within the scope of the EU regulatory framework if it does not entail provision of an Electronic Communications Service. This applies even if the VoIP offering allows for voice communications between users who have purchased the product. The European Commission also confirms that VoIP solutions rolled out within corporate private networks for internal use are electronic communications services, but are not subject to any particular form of regulation, and that the same is applicable for VoIP technologies that are used within a public operators’ core network and that do not impinge on the retail services offered to customers nor on the quality of those services.
2) As regards the regulated categories, on the issue of PATS (publicly accessible telephone service) versus non-PATS, the Commission confirms the principle of technological neutrality, but follows the 'minimalist line', i.e. it considers that if a VoIP service does not provide access to emergency services, it should not be qualified as PATS and hence should not be subject to the wide range of obligations that are applicable to traditional public telephone services. As a consequence, users of a non-PATS VoIP service may not be entitled to number portability and not enjoy the right to be listed in a public telephone directory, but operators are able to enter the market without having to comply with a wide range of obligations. The annexes to the European Commission's document contain tables setting out the rights and obligations of the various categories of operators.
3) Emergency calls (and caller location): The European Commission recognises current technological limitations, and encourages market players to devise and rapidly implement operational solutions for the effective handling of calls to emergency services. The Commission also puts forward that clear information should be provided to consumers (also via the applicable contracts) about the limitations of certain VoIP services.
4) Numbering: on the key question as to whether VoIP providers should have the right to use geographic telephone numbers, the European Commission is very explicit, by stating, without any linkage with the PATS / non-PATS debate, the following:
"While the Directives do not stipulate what type of numbers are to be granted, in order to foster competition and stimulate the emergence of new services, Member States are encouraged to give any undertaking providing or using electronic communication networks or services that applies for it, access to geographic numbers.
Offering geographic numbers can be a very important element in the business proposal of a publicly available ECS provider to its prospective clients; this could be linked to the importance attached by users to having a geographic number, or to tariff structures that favour calls to geographic numbers."
"National Regulatory Authorities can attach specific conditions to the rights of use of numbers (Annex C of the Authorisation Directive).
Where Member States decide that the amount of numbers in a given number range is limited it shall distribute those numbers in an objective, transparent and nondiscriminatory matter.
Member States should take into account the need to foster emerging innovative services, whether these are based on VoIP or not. Member States must avoid discriminating between providers as regards the numbering used. This could for instance be the case if a new undertaking were to receive non-geographic numbers, while its competitors had received geographic numbers; this could result in end-users assuming, whether justified or not, that they would have to pay higher interconnect prices when calling customers of the provider that has only non-geographic numbers.
Failure to assign suitable numbers, or undue delays in assignment of numbers, could constitute discrimination."
5) Link with Recommendation on Relevant Markets: The European Commission refrains from commenting on the impact of VoIP in the context of the ongoing market reviews in the Member States, and indicates that the Recommendation on Relevant Markets Susceptible to Ex-Ante Regulation will be reviewed at the end of 2005 (until now a review was expected in mid-2004).
For a discussion of the above, and other, aspects of the European Commission's document, or for assistance with regard to VoIP regulations in EU Member States, with which T-REGS has considerable practical experience, please contact Yves Blondeel.
For information on VoIP regulations in EU Member States, please type "VoIP" in the search box at the top centre of the T-REGS home page.