As the popularity of VoIP grows, and PSTN users switch to VoIP in increasing numbers, governments are becoming more interested in regulating VoIP in a manner similar to PSTN services,.
Another legal issue that the U.S. Congress is debating concerns changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The issue in question is calls between Americans and foreigners. The National Security Agency (NSA) isn’t authorized to tap Americans’ conversations without a warrant—but the Internet, and specifically voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, doesn’t draw as clear a line to the location of a caller or a call’s recipient as the traditional phone system does. As VoIP’s low cost and flexibility convinces more and more organizations to adopt the technology, the line separating the NSA’s ability to snoop on phone calls will only get blurrier. VoIP technology has also increased security concerns because VoIP and similar technologies have made it more difficult for the government to determine where a target is physically located when communications are being intercepted, and that creates a whole set of new legal challenges.
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission now requires all interconnected VoIP service providers to comply with requirements comparable to those for traditional telecommunications service providers. VoIP operators in the U.S. are required to support local number portability; make service accessible to people with disabilities; pay regulatory fees, universal service contributions, and other mandated payments; and enable law enforcement authorities to conduct surveillance pursuant to the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). “Interconnected” VoIP operators also must provide Enhanced 911 service, disclose any limitations on their E-911 functionality to their consumers, and obtain affirmative acknowledgements of these disclosures from all consumers. VoIP operators also receive the benefit of certain U.S. telecommunications regulations, including an entitlement to interconnection and exchange of traffic with incumbent local exchange carriers via wholesale carriers. Providers of “nomadic” VoIP service — those who are unable to determine the location of their users — are exempt from state telecommunications regulation.
Throughout the developing world, countries where regulation is weak or captured by the dominant operator, restrictions on the use of VoIP are imposed, including in Panama where VoIP is taxed, Guyana where VoIP is prohibited and India where its retail commercial sales is allowed but only for long distance service. In Ethiopia, where the government is monopolizing telecommunication service, it is a criminal offense to offer services using VoIP. The country has installed firewalls to prevent international calls being made using VoIP. These measures were taken after a popularity in VoIP reduced the income generated by the state owned telecommunication company.
In the European Union, the treatment of VoIP service providers is a decision for each Member State’s national telecoms regulator, which must use competition law to define relevant national markets and then determine whether any service provider on those national markets has “significant market power” (and so should be subject to certain obligations). A general distinction is usually made between VoIP services that function over managed networks (via broadband connections) and VoIP services that function over unmanaged networks (essentially, the Internet).
VoIP services that function over managed networks are often considered to be a viable substitute for PSTN telephone services (despite the problems of power outages and lack of geographical information); as a result, major operators that provide these services (in practice, incumbent operators) may find themselves bound by obligations of price control or accounting separation.
VoIP services that function over unmanaged networks are often considered to be too poor in quality to be a viable substitute for PSTN services; as a result, they may be provided without any specific obligations, even if a service provider has “significant market power”.
The relevant EU Directive is not clearly drafted concerning obligations which can exist independently of market power (e.g., the obligation to offer access to emergency calls), and it is impossible to say definitively whether VoIP service providers of either type are bound by them. A review of the EU Directive is under way and should be complete by 2007.
In India, it is legal to use VoIP, but it is illegal to have VoIP gateways inside India. This effectively means that people who have PCs can use them to make a VoIP call to any number, but if the remote side is a normal phone, the gateway that converts the VoIP call to a POTS call should not be inside India.
In the UAE, it is illegal to use any form of VoIP, to the extent that Web sites of Skype and Gizmo5 are blocked.
In the Republic of Korea, only providers registered with the government are authorized to offer VoIP services. Unlike many VoIP providers, most of whom offer flat rates, Korean VoIP services are generally metered and charged at rates similar to terrestrial calling. Foreign VoIP providers such as Vonage encounter high barriers to government registration. This issue came to a head in 2006 when Internet service providers providing personal Internet services by contract to United States Forces Korea members residing on USFK bases threatened to block off access to VoIP services used by USFK members of as an economical way to keep in contact with their families in the United States, on the grounds that the service members’ VoIP providers were not registered. A compromise was reached between USFK and Korean telecommunications officials in January 2007, wherein USFK service members arriving in Korea before June 1, 2007 and subscribing to the ISP services provided on base may continue to use their U.S.-based VoIP subscription, but later arrivals must use a Korean-based VoIP provider, which by contract will offer pricing similar to the flat rates offered by U.S. VoIP providers.
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