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Commission calls for comment on the legal status of 'voice on the Internet'

The European Commission has launched a public consultation following the publication of a review of the existing legislation governing the status of 'voice on the Internet'. The legislation, laid down in Directive 90/388/EEC was published in 1998 to set out the status of voice...

The European Commission has launched a public consultation following the publication of a review of the existing legislation governing the status of 'voice on the Internet'. The legislation, laid down in Directive 90/388/EEC was published in 1998 to set out the status of voice on the Internet in the context of competition on the markets for telecommunications services. The Directive reflected the Commission's concern over the growing development of specific software able to code, compress and transmit the sound of a person's voice making it possible to converse via the Internet to other Internet subscribers using the same or interoperable software and via gateways to standard telephones - defined as voice over Internet protocol. From this definition of so-called 'voice over Internet protocol' (VoIP), the Commission, which distinguished three categories of service (PC to PC, PC to phone and phone to phone) concluded that Internet telephony fell outside the definition of voice telephony. This was mostly on the grounds that it did not meet the reliability and speech quality normally needed for voice telephony. Under the licensing rules at the time, this implied that Member States must allow Internet access providers to offer voice over the Internet under general authorisations for data transmission. The Commission now predicts that technology for Internet telephony will advance to a generally acceptable level of reliability and quality for many users. In addition, it says public telecommunications operators will increasingly use IP in their core networks to carry data and voice. It also notes that certain public telecommunications operators with 'significant' market power have started providing voice over Internet protocol using their data backbone networks. 'For large data users within a closed user environment, VoIP may become the preferred technology for supporting internal telephone service, as the cost of equipment for VoIP falls, and users are able to realise substantial efficiency gains by combining voice and data over the same network,' says the Commission. However, Commission officials believe that individual consumers will continue to use their telephones in preference to their PCs for telephone calls, while circuit switched technology will continue to be used on local access networks, but in parallel with IP. While Internet telephony is yet to make a major impact, the Commission believes its development will indirectly put pressure on existing price structures in the same way as call-back or calling cards services. Internet voice services have remained limited until now it says because of: - the difficulty of guaranteeing good sound quality; - inconvenience to the user due to technical complexities and evaluating different options on the market; - the erosion of profit margins because of the falling cost of telephone services on the public switched telecommunications networks - particularly for long distance and international calls. But Internet services are being used within the backbone networks of public switched telephone networks and will increasingly be used in private networks to carry voices and data services, says the Commission, adding: 'The use of IP technology in this way does not affect the regulatory position of the companies concerned, nor does it require any change in the licenses or authorisations under which they operate.' 'For the time being, and without anticipating...any possible medium term changes in the regulatory framework following the current review - the Commission envisages that it will confirm that the current definition of voice telephony in Directive 90/388/EEC continues to be the adequate basis for assessing the regulatory position of voice communications services on the Internet in the post liberalisation situation.' The Commission intends to confirm that Internet telephony still continues to fall outside the definition of voice telephony, however it is interested to hear alternative points of view and observations on the matter. Interested parties are invited to submit their comments to the Commission at the address below. These will be published on-line on the Europa server (unless the third party objects). (This consultation of Directive 90/388/EEC is not intended to lead to changes or assess its timelines, but to assess its continuing appropriateness.)