At the end of 2009, the European Union adopted a package of amendments to the EU telecommunications regulatory framework that will require changes to be made to communications laws of the 27 EU countries.

The amendments will have significant implications for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services and the use of VoIP applications on smartphones.

VoIP more clearly regulated as a telephone service

  • All “two-way” VoIP services—those allowing outbound and inbound telephone calls—will be treated the same as traditional fixed line and mobile telephone services (e.g., itemized billing, tariff publication, disabled-user access, etc.).
  • VoIP services that make telephone calls must provide “reliable and accurate” access to emergency services through VoIP calls to 999/112, including for disabled end-users. Any limitations must be disclosed.
  • Caller location information must be provided with emergency calls (although “network-independent” providers may be given more time to comply).

Impact: Services like Skype Out and Google Voice must provide emergency dialing and make an effort to provide caller-location information. Services that provide telephone numbers for receiving calls will be subject to full telephony regulation if they permit outbound telephone calls.

Limited measures to promote net neutrality

  • Any limitations on the use of Internet applications must be disclosed to consumers. Operators must explain the impact of their traffic shaping policies on service quality.
  • As a last-resort measure, national regulators can set minimum quality levels in order to protect against Internet service providers (ISPs) providing unacceptably low levels of quality or speed.

Impact: ISPs and mobile network operators will still be able to manage their networks. Consumers are expected to discourage network operators from interfering with services on their networks by switching to providers that permit open access, but this assumes healthy competition among providers and alert, responsive consumers. As long as limitations are properly disclosed, telecom law will generally permit ISPs and operators to limit access to VoIP services and other applications.

Greater portability for telephone numbers

  • Services must allow the transfer of telephone numbers within one working day.
  • The European Commission can adopt some measures to harmonize the use of telephone numbers, but earlier proposals to allow the Commission to allocate numbers directly in limited cases were rejected.

Impact: VoIP services that provide telephone numbers will need to permit portability within 24 hours. Access to geographic telephone numbers, particularly for nomadic services, will continue to be an issue on a country-by-country basis.

New limitations on locking subscribers to networks

  • There are new disclosure requirements covering restrictions that operators place on the use of telephone handsets and other devices connected to networks.
  • Consumer contracts cannot require a minimum commitment of longer than 24 months. A provider must offer a choice of a subscription contract with a duration of no more than 12 months.

Impact: Operators distributing smartphones such as the iPhone must disclose any restrictions on the use of VoIP on these devices. Operators cannot lock in consumers for longer than 24 months and must offer the option of a 12-month contract (although they will be free to charge the full cost of a handset).

New regulations to come into effect by May 2011

The new regulations will require amendments to be made to telecom laws in the U.K. and across Europe. These changes must be made by May 2011. However, some EU regulators are likely to start applying the new regulations earlier as they update their existing VoIP policies.