Voice calls on Internet open a Pandora's Box for HK Telecom
KUDOS to the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) for practising what it preaches. It is going through the trial stages of building a presence on Internet's World-Wide Web.
For an organisation that must disseminate information in enormous volumes, OFTA's Web pages are well planned.
Building a Web presence is the easy part of OFTA's general Web agenda. An advertisement in this newspaper last week offering voice telephone calls via the Internet highlighted a far more complex issue with which the authority must deal.
The technology exists for using the Internet as a vehicle for voice, though it is somewhat cumbersome at this stage. But the cost savings potential in using the Internet for voice are likely to induce people to put up with its initially cumbersome nature.The service advertised last week was offering voice services to virtually anywhere in the world for a flat rate of $10 per hour.
Hongkong Telecom International, which has a monopoly on international voice telephony that extends until 2006, must be watching the development with a great deal of interest. In terms of technology, the telecommunications world will be a very different place by the time that franchise rolls around for renewal.
Nobody is forgetting that a huge amount of money is at stake.
Internet voice technology does not yet pose much of a threat to Telecom in terms of making any visible impact on the corporation's international revenues. But the technology is moving fast, and the decisions that OFTA must make now with regard to Internet voice could have an enormous impact on the medium term future.
If precedent is anything to go by, OFTA has always made clear that where it is possible to do so, it will liberalise the market as far as it can in terms of existing franchises. Although the issue is still under consideration, the same appears true of Internet voice, which OFTA appears to view as a value-added telecommunications service (it does not contravene Hongkong Telecom's franchise).
The technology on which Internet voice services are based is of the store-forward variety.
The actual 'store' and then 'forward' function might be measured in milliseconds.
But as the technology develops, it will become extremely difficult - if not impossible - to police, in the same way that controlling content has proven to be virtually impossible.
OFTA has invited the industry to put forward its views on the subject. Those views had better come in soon because new voice services are appearing increasingly often.