Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Arrrg! OFCOM

Well, once again we are having discussions with our favourite regulator.
As ever, just my personal opinions on things...

It is all very sensible that telecoms has some regulation, and most of the rules are pretty sensible. OFCOM get to make the rules within certain constraints (the "General Conditions") and they are the ones that enforce them. Fair enough.

One of the biggest issues we have with them is that when there is any sort of grey area, such as how OFCOM interpret their published rules, they will point blank refuse to answer simple questions. They say to "take independent legal advice". This is totally bullshit (IMHO) as OFCOM are the enforcement authority. They have to have a view on such matters and it is their view that matters. Now yes, there seem to be plenty of cases where their view is wrong (IMHO) and going against their view it is sensible to get legal advice, but where it is a simple question and they can say something is in fact allowed, then that is it. They are the enforcement authority and they just need to make a simple decision and tell us. They could even publish such Q&A on their web site so all operators are working to the same clarified rules. I am not even talking complex questions here.

I have, for example, asked if we are allowed to operate voicemail on our new 07 mobile numbers. This seems a daft question, you may think. It seem obvious that we should be able to as every does. But they will not say yes or no. Why is it an issue? Well, the rules are in fact quite clear that we cannot, and neither can any mobile operator. In fact, following the rules (as I am sure any independent legal advice would tell us) means nobody using mobile numbers can provide voicemail, call diverts to non mobile numebrs, or run their call centres on mobile numbers. The rules are that every call must involve a radio link to/from a mobile handset. I thought they would not treat the rules quite that literally but the first time we applied for mobile numbers they refused, stating that as there was a chance that even one call could terminate on the fixed network we would not be using the numbers in accordance with the rules! They now say we must not routinely terminate calls on a fixed network, but won't define that. Other mobile operators routinely provide voicemail, so again they are breaking these new vague rules. Is it so much to ask that a regulator actually states what is and is not allowed, please?

The latest fiasco is slightly different. The have insisted VoIP operators provide access to 999/112 (emergency services). It is questionable whether this is in fact sensible or not, but that is how it is, and we do provide it. We route the calls via a carrier we use. Of course, the rules simply say that we have to "ensure end users have access to emergency services". Nothing actually says that we have to route 999/112, and previously we made it part of our terms that users must have a fixed line or mobile as well, so as to ensure they "have access". OFCOM insist we cannot rely on instructions of terms to ensure end users have access. Even when the VoIP kit has a PSTN connection (gigaset DECT/VoIP did, and routed 999/112 via it) that was not good enough as they may have unplugged the PSTN (?!?). Now that we do route calls to 999/112 we can't in fact be compliant, as we are relying on instructions and terms to ensure people using such kit programs it to send 999/112 via us and not the (possibly unplugged) PSTN connection, but OFCOM say routing 999/112 is all they want. I.e. they do not actually follow the rules they define but make up new ones and change them as it suits them!!!

So, we route 999 and 112, good. But they now want "location information" passed to emergency operators. But hang on? The service we offer has a username and password and can be used by anyone with those details from any point on the Intrernet and change from call to call and even have multiple phones on the same number at the same time in dirrect locations.

It is a bit like us having a phone socket in Maidenhead and saying "plug your phone in here and make calls, using however many miles of extension lead as you like" and then expecting us to know where the call actually comes from. Indeed, one could argue that the service is provided at the location of the call server (data centre in Maidenhead) and everything beyond that is not part of the VoIP service we provide but a sort of virtual extension lead. The principle applies for corporate phone systems already where an office may have an ISDN line, and VoIP going out to employee's homes. The location is that of the ISDN line at the office.

So, we have no location data. It is not feasible to try and deduce location data from an IP, and even if we could (e.g. our own customers broadband lines) and even if we assumed no proxy or call server relaying the call, we have no way to get that data to emergency services in real time. The way it works is BT run a database that holds addresses for calling numbers which have to be set up in advance (not real time). Well, you can't do that for VoIP.

The best we can do is ask end users, if they happen to only use their VoIP account in one place, to provide an address that we can send to BT in advance. Sadly, BT won't talk to us for address database updates, and they won't allow the carriers we use to update the database for our numbers. And OFCOM do not seem to understand. The issue is the rules don't require BT to talk to us! We'd be happy to make reasonable efforts to get what data we have to emergency services where that is possible, obviously.

What is worse is that OFCOM are being a tad special reading their own rules, once again. We want to be compliant and technically correct anyway, and in fact we want to go ruther and provide something useful to our customers. The rules say we have to make data available. They do not dictate any specific technical means of doing that. I said (seeing as BT won't talk to us) we simply have it on a web page (with username) so emergency services can access it. That is "making available", in my view. They say that is not acceptable, but can't show me where in their rules it says that. They are just making up rules as they go along, it seems.

One of the big issues, and we saw this with directories too, is that there is a "common practice" that works for the larger telcos and usually involves BT doing some crucial role to centralise things. BT do some really useful stuff. But the rules do not fit this common practice, and the common practice does not always fit with a VoIP operator. So we end up with rules saying one thing, and OFCOM insisting on something else, and people like us stuck in the middle, complying with the rules but having discussions with OFCOM all the time.

The fact it is not technically feasible to provide accurate and reliable location data (and the rules are we have to only if it is technically feasible) seems to be ignored by them. The fact that there is no data in the telecoms network regarding the location of the caller (and the rules say that it is the data in the network relating to the location of the caller that we have to provide) is also ignored by them.

I think that, for a whole string of reasons, the rules do not require us to do anything. That means we are compliant.

I think it would be good if BT had to take data from us so that we can allow customers to tell us the location data they would like passed to emergency operators. It would be nice if OFCOM insisted that they do talk to us. Then we could do what our customers actually want. It may save someone's life one day.

I can see this one going on for a while...

Oh, and I dropped apple in it, sorry. The rules say that if I can make calls to numbers in the national calling plan then I have to be able to call 999 or 112. My iPad allows me to call any iPhone users using the mobile number of the iPhone, i.e. a number in the national calling plan, using facetime. That means my iPad, and hence apple's facetime service, has to allow calls to 999 and 112. It also has to pass location data (it has a GPS, so easy) but somehow do that in real time as it is a mobile device, and cope with the fact that my iPad calls from an email address and not a phone number (so cannot use BTs database system). I wonder if OFCOM will enforce their own rules against apple, or just quietly ignore it.


  1. Tell me about it - despite having ensured that data for all my users in a principally fixed location is present in the BT database, I got a vaguely threatening letter from them reminding me that they are able to take enforcement action and issues fines of up to (from memory) £10k per day etc...

    I wonder if the solution is to have it so that if the emergency operator presses e.g. '9' it plays back a text to speech of their address if known - that is technically making available ;)

  2. Surely the 'correct' thing to do is to find evidence of other organisations flouting the guidelines and make formal complaints about them.

    If nothing is done about the complaints, there's your evidence that OfCom consider it acceptable practice if and when they come after you.

  3. Actually, you have a good idea there.

    If we made a formal complaint about, say, Orange, providing voicemail and therefor not operating in accordance with the numbering plan, OFCOM would have to reply. Their reply would give the answer to whether we can run voicemail or not.

    I may do that.

    They did noting about mobile operators not providing ACR and that is a law being broken after something like a decade by pretty much all mobile operators.

  4. You'd probably be on stronger ground with the 07973 100 xxx customer service numbers, the similar ones used by other operators or even the remote voicemail access numbers most operators provide wouldn't you?

  5. Better complaint would be about an operator putting their customer services on an 07 number, see e.g. - that would seem to me to be 'more' against the rules than the voicemail side of things, given calls to that number will *never* terminate on a mobile...

  6. Why just one complaint? You need to leave no wiggle-room ("Well, their circumstances were different to yours") - in order for this to be any way effective, every single example of the rules being 'broken' need to be covered.

  7. - free diverts to a landline for your mobile number. I had this years ago on my personal account when I was with them.

    How can OFCOM allow this yet complain about your services potentially terminating an 07 number on a fixed/SIP line?

  8. Sorry for thick question - what's the deal for emergency calls from mobiles ? Presumably live location data (coords of current serving cell?) is passed to emerg services in real time.

    FWIW Voda ask me to register (in their web portal) the address where my femtocell is located, such that they can provide this to emerg services, again presumably in real time.

  9. Yes, mobile operators have means to pass cell details to emergency services in real time. The mechanism for everyone else is the BT database pre-filled with address details. Its not a system that makes sense for VoIP.

  10. The one time I had cause to ring 999 on my mobile I had to wait while the 999 operator I had connected to (presumably operated by t-mobile) dictated my mobile number (but nothing else like cell details) to the police operator. This was in 2008. Doesn't sound very real time to me!

  11. OfCom's "we don't give legal advice" has been the bane of Radio Amateurs for a long time. They introduced a new licence a few years ago which had bits missing from the old one (apparently by accident), which means that if you read it as it is written then things that we could do previously are no longer allowed, including some things that thousands of people do every day. (There is no suggestion that they intended to ban them).

    If you ask them for clarification they give the answer you got, so the only way to determine if you're complying with the law is to do what you want and see if they prosecute! The trouble is, that can get very expensive, win or lose.

    It's utterly ludicrous and should be changed.

    Cheers, Howard (G1BYY)