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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Number row over broadband calls
Woman talking on the telephone
End to phone calls as we know them?
The prospect of making cheap telephone calls over the net is being threatened by regulation, says an industry figure.

Ahal Besorai, chief executive of broadband telephony firm Inclarity believes that the super-regulator Ofcom is adopting the wrong approach to internet telephony.

The issue centres on how numbers are allocated for making telephone calls.

Ofcom wants to create new numbers but this could be more costly and less convenient for users argues Mr Besorai.

"The noises Ofcom has made so far are concerning. If the right approach is not taken to this service it could kill it very quickly," he told BBC News Online.

Transferring numbers

The system used by Inclarity allows users to connect their existing phones to the broadband network rather than using BT's phone network.

Much of the regulatory arrangements for broadband telephony are yet to be worked through and there is a variety of options
Ofcom spokesperson
Other broadband telephony services rely on PC to PC communication, using headsets and microphones.

If the prefix 056, favoured by Ofcom, is adopted for all broadband telephony services, consumers could be put off broadband telephony argues Mr Besorai.

Geographical numbering would allow people to transfer their existing telephone number as well as having the advantage of being something callers are familiar with.

Ofcom is due to conclude its consultation on the issues at the beginning of next month and is keen to stress that no final decisions will be made until then.

"Much of the regulatory arrangements for broadband telephony are yet to be worked through and there is a variety of options," said an Ofcom spokesperson.

One advantage of non-geographical numbering would be that each member of a household would be able to have individual numbers and customers would be able to keep the same number if they moved house.

A special prefix, such as 056, would also alert customers to the fact that it was a distinct service separate from traditional telephone services, he said.

PC chat

Broadband telephony is experiencing something of a renaissance with Inclarity one of several companies offering services to both businesses and home users.

Touted for many years as a killer application for the internet, the proliferation of broadband connections means net calls are now of the same quality as traditional telephone calls.

Uluru, Australia
Chatting to relatives the other side of the world could be cheaper
There are now a handful of companies across Europe introducing the idea of using PCs rather than telephones to make phone calls.

Internet service provider AOL will offer such a service to its UK customers as part of the latest version of its online service.

It will allow customers to make free calls from their PCs to other AOL members using just a microphone and speakers.

AOL is certainly not over-hyping the potential at this stage.

"Voice over IP has been around for a long time. It is more likely to be a slow burner than an overnight hit," said AOL spokesperson Jonathan Lambert.

"The fact that it is cheaper doesn't necessarily make it successful. It changes the way that we use our phones we will have to see how consumers respond," he said.

For anyone with relatives overseas, a free internet call could be a lot more appealing than picking up the phone, and with a broadband connection the quality is as good said Mr Lambert.

If net calls do take off it could signal worrying times for traditional telcos such as BT.

To counteract this, BT has made sure it has its finger in the broadband telephony pie, launching its own broadband telephony service, BT Communicator, in March.

Trials will begin in May.

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