ACIF moves to bridge VoIP 'islands'

More than two years after the former Australian Communications Authority (ACA) declared its intentions to regulate voice over IP, the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF) is struggling to define standards to curb rogue service providers and increase interoperability.

Since the merger of the ACA and the Australian Broadcasting Authority last year, the combined Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has been working to introduce the new 0550 number range for 'substantially nomadic emerging communications services', while ACIF is developing industry codes and standards in the hope of end-to-end IP calls between networks.

ACIF's VoIP interconnection and QoS working group chairman, Dr Paul Brooks said VoIP services are "islands" in that a call can come in from an IP-connected phone but there is little integration and consistency between networks.

"The TIO (Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman) is looking at VoIP providers not currently engaged with the TIO," Brooks said. "Some VoIP providers feel they are 'outside' the framework other service providers are in and they need to get their heads out of the sand."

Speaking at a VoIP summit in Sydney yesterday, Brooks said ACIF has had a VoIP working group since 2002 and has coordinated VoIP forums since 2004.

ACIF advocates leveraging existing international standards and independent testing of IP networks and providers to ensure transparency with services like calling number identification.

"We will make sure providers are playing fair in the sandpit and not just grabbing money out of subscribers," Brooks said. "We're still working out what needs to be done and are at the cusp of working out the requirements."

Describing the regulatory environment as an "alphabet soup", Brooks stressed the need to plan ahead because "the industry realizes there is a tidal wave coming so we don't want the industry filled with crushed business models because something crucial was forgotten in between".

"The number of providers is growing and not all are going to give you the same experience," he said. "In the IP telephony world we now have the service provider for the telephony portion separated from the network access provider. And often in a residential environment there is no contractual link between the two."

In addition to the ACIF, ACMA, and TIO, the Department of Communication IT and the Arts is responsible for overall policy and regulation.

"DCITA looks after legislation that filters down to service providers," Brooks said. "DCITA's recommendations are that VoIP providers disclose limitations, for example many don't have DTMF (Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency) so no phone banking. So there is a requirement for service providers to tell people up front."

Furthermore, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is investigating trade practices and fair trading "issues".

"The ACCC is looking at number portability and issues which may be unnecessarily locking you in," Brooks said. "For example, you can't take numbers with you when you move service provider and you can't take a home number to a VoIP provider. So there may be new requirements made for number portability."

Brooks said misleading advertising and inadequate disclosures are also being investigated by the ACCC.

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