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British ruling cheers VoIP industry

Carriers are pleased with system that will allow consumers to transfer fixed-line numbers to their Net phone service.

British regulatory agency Ofcom has begun to map out the future of commercial Net phone services.

And while some issues are as yet unresolved, the organization issued a key ruling Monday that was popular among carriers.

The communications regulator announced that Net phone service providers will be able to offer subscribers both geography-based phone numbers and numbers that aren't tied to location.

Geography-based numbers will begin with "01" or "02," as do the United Kingdom's existing fixed-line telephone numbers. This will let consumers choose numbers that indicate where they are located. It will also allow a consumer to shift onto a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service plan and retain his or her existing number.

Nongeographic numbers, which will begin with "056," will be suitable for people who want to use their Net phone service from many locations. For example, a subscriber could install the necessary software on a laptop and connect anywhere over a GPRS or 3G link.

Ofcom predicted that Internet telephony, which it calls voice over broadband, will enable consumers to access features typically seen today solely in enterprises--including sophisticated messaging options, video calls and large conference calls.

In a statement, Ofcom Chief Executive Stephen Carter said his agency intends to "keep out of the way," while still encouraging the development of new voice services.

Regulation of Net phone service has also been a big issue in the United States, where debates have raged over how the services should be taxed to whether they must comply with the federal wiretap rules that govern fixed-line services.

This is Ofcom's first significant move in the Net phone sector, and it appears to have found broad approval within the industry.

"It's looking quite good so far," a representative for the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) said, lauding the availability of both geographic and nongeographic numbers. "There was a concern that Ofcom might go with either one or the other. This gives flexibility to users."

Ofcom also announced that it will run a public consultation into the tricky question of how functional and reliable a VoIP service should have to be.

Under U.K. law, any company offering telephone service must adhere to a set of provisions called PATS (publicly available telephone services). A service that complies with PATS must be able to continue working after a disaster, and it must always be able to connect users with with emergency services, for example.

Complying with PATS can be expensive. To comply, a VoIP provider would have to pay for a gateway to the public switched telephone network, which would be more costly than just routing calls over the Internet.

In addition, anyone using VoIP over a home computer would not be able to use the service during an electrical blackout, unless they also ran a generator or an uninterruptible power supply.

ISPA has been lobbying hard that Net phone services should not have to comply with PATS. The organization recently claimed that this would "effectively deliver a death sentence to the U.K.'s emerging VoIP industry."

Ofcom's consultation will run until Nov. 15.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.