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The great IP telephony debate heats up

Bell Canada and Rogers at odds over what role, if any, the CRTC should play

May 1, 2004  

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The next telecom wave may be all about Voice over IP (VoIP), but how it will be regulated remains a huge question mark.

At the Expo Comm conference in Toronto last month, an industry roundtable of representative from telcos and government discussed and debated this and other issues.

“We’re all struggling with the Internet and VoIP,” said Michael Binder, Assistant Deputy Minister of Spectrum, Information Technologies and Telecommunications at Industry Canada

“Some people are arguing that nobody knows how this is going to turn out so don’t regulate it. Others are saying if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s voice and we have to regulate it. I’m looking forward to some industry argument as to what is the right policy.

In April, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced it will examine the regulatory framework applicable to VoIP telephony service.

While the underlying technology is different than the plain old telephone system (POTS), its characteristics are functionally the same, it said.

As a result, it announced that the existing regulatory framework should apply to VoIP services.

However, in a recent speech to members of the Quebec City Chamber of Commerce, Michael Sabia, president and CEO of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., called for the re-setting of the policy framework that governs the communications industry.

“This issue goes far beyond the interests of any one company or any group of companies. It’s about the health of an industry that can drive productivity and expansion across our economy,” he said. “It’s about Canadian companies being equipped to compete on the world stage.

“Designed to create competition, the current policy framework has done its job. Now it’s time for a public policy that will enable the growth of a strong industry, by treating all players equally and recognizing that once separate industries have become one common industry that needs common public policy treatment.”

The commission noted that much has changed since the first systems supporting voice communication services using IP were introduced.

“Telecommunications today transcends traditional boundaries and simple definition,” it said. “It is an industry, a market and a means of doing business that encompasses a constantly evolving range of voice, data and video products, and services.”

Rogers Communications Inc., which is scheduled to introduce a VoIP service next year, was satisfied with the ruling.

“It’s not a positive for us, but an absence of a negative,” said Ken Engelhart, the firm’s vice-president of regulatory. “Anybody who understands the way telecom is regulated in Canada knows that the rules don’t change because a new technology comes along, (but) because Bell raised the question, the Commission felt compelled to have a proceeding.”

At the conference, he said that while the vendor community is “excited” about VoIP, it is also time for a reality check.

“Don’t forget that there’s no better technology that can deliver voice than a nicely depreciated twisted-pair circuit switch network,” said Englehart.

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