Brits Brace for VOIP Battle
Ofcom says it has been contacted by a growing number of companies interested in providing VOIP services to the country's growing population of broadband users, though it won't name the interested parties.
So now the watchdog is bringing all the VOIP hopefuls together at a behind-closed-doors meeting, slated for February 25, to tackle the "range of potential regulatory issues" that the provision of voice over broadband might raise. Those potential issues include numbering, access to emergency services, and "customer awareness of the limitations of VOIP," according to an Ofcom spokeswoman.
The surge in interest from service providers has been prompted by the explosive uptake of high-speed Internet access in the U.K., which now has more than 3 million homes hooked up with broadband -- and that number is rising every week.
That growth has already prompted a voice-over-broadband service launch by national incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA), which already offers a limited service aimed specifically at the country's 1.5 million cable broadband users (see BT Gets Aggressive With VOIP). And a BT spokesman says it will announce further VOIP services in March "that will have implications for broadband customers. The existing service has allowed us to test the waters."
By that time, other players may have already entered the market. U.S. VOIP player Vonage Holdings Corp. has announced its intention to launch in the U.K. before the end of March. And VOIP wholesale operator Inclarity plc, which provides IP Centrex services (see Inclarity Upgrades Broadband Telephony), says it's about to announce a channel partnership for residential VOIP services "with a well known brand."
The meeting might also help to plug some holes in the current VOIP regulations, which are less than crystal clear, according to Dianne Northfield, program manager for global regulatory strategies at Yankee Group. "The current regulations regarding VOIP are open to interpretation -- it's quite nebulous. That's the case in many countries," she says. "Things will become clearer once more services are launched and the operators make submissions, or complaints about other services, to the regulator."
In addition, Northfield's colleague at Yankee, Jonathan Doran, questions whether there's any money to be made from offering these services at all in the U.K. "This is not a money-spinner, and not something worth doing for many operators, though ISPs might need to offer it to keep up with the competition," says Doran. "Traditional voice services are very cheap now, and most services are moving towards flat-rate tariffs or being offered in large bundles. And it's really tough to compete against BT. It's probably something that might generate some interest if international calls were offered really cheaply."
— Ray Le Maistre, International Editor, Boardwatch