VoIP faces the need to grow up: report from Fall VON 2006

by Andy Oram

Voice over IP suddenly had to mature and take on responsibilities over the past few months, as the FCC decided suddenly to impose a host of regulations on it. Governments (urged on by traditional phone companies) have been talking for years about making VoIP obey the same rules as the public switched telephone network (PSTN). When I attended the Voice Over Network conference in Boston last Fall, such discussions were still in the exploratory and "What if..." stage. FCC chair Michael Powell's enthusiasm for the disruptive potention of VoIP seemed to keep such regulations at bay. But Powell resigned in January 2005.

Over the past year, the FCC has quickly ruled that any VoIP calls attached to the PSTN have to:

  • Allow wiretapping on their systems
  • Support emergency 911 calls
  • Pay hefty fees into the Universal Service Fund to support poor and rural areas
These requirements don't apply to pure VoIP, computer-to-computer calls, which stay off the PSTN. But most companies still depend on the PSTN, partly because most phones are still traditional ones, and partly because two VoIP phones may not be able to find each other on the Internet.

I came to VON this year to find out how companies are reacting to the new regulatory requirements, as well as what they're doing to grow up in other ways: offer better security, allow vendors to measure performance and quality, and so on. VON is an increasingly popular show, expecting between 9,000 and 10,000 attendees this year. There was plenty for them to look at.