National telecoms regulators in 25 EU countries have agreed to create a level playing field to allow voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services to compete against traditional networks.
The move should mean the elimination of several barriers that have kept the take-up of VoIP in Europe to a fraction of levels seen in the rest of the world.
The European Regulators Group (ERG), which met in Brussels on Friday, agreed to create a regulatory environment in which VoIP services can flourish.
The group issued a statement setting out how it would ensure that current legislation was applied consistently across member states to ensure that VoIP providers did not face unnecessary hurdles to competing with fixed and mobile service operators.
For example, regulators are planning to address the question of number allocation. In some countries, like Germany, VoIP service providers are given numbers starting with the 032 prefix, regardless where the service is based. But this can hold back VoIP providers if potential customers prefer a local number because it would win them more business.
The ERG statement says that "numbering plans should be technologically neutral" and the same number ranges should be available for both traditional voice and VoIP services.
Another issue bothering VoIP providers is the requirement to provide free calls to emergency services and in some cases provide caller identification. Because VoIP services do not operate from a fixed point, this can cause problems in routing calls to the nearest network or providing information about the caller. Regulators also pledged to deal with this while urging the industry to develop technological solutions to any limitations on providing information.
A spokesman for the European Commission, which handles promoting competition though fair application of regulation, pointed out that VoIP use is far lower in the EU than in other parts of the world.
According to the spokesman, Japan has 4.9 million VoIP users and one million people use the technology in the US. However, Germany, for example, has only 10,000 VoIP users.
The spokesman said that VoIP's take-up depends on broadband Internet access. Currently 6.5 percent of the EU's population has broadband access, the spokesman said, and the target is to raise this figure to 50 percent by 2010. To do this the EU has to offer a range of attractive services over the Internet, he said.
EU Information Technology Commissioner Vivian Reding said that the Commission favoured an "open, pro-competitive approach to voice over IP in all member states." She said that VoIP has the potential to "radically change" the existing market structure and may have a bigger impact on consumers and businesses than email.