Voice over IP. Competition Policy and Regulation
Traditionally, there have been two separate telecommunications networks, one based on switches, the other based on routers. The switched network basically carried voice. The packet switched network basically carried data. Now voice is about to go packet switched too. Ultimately, both networks might merge. If that were to happen, the governance structure of either of these networks would have to change fundamentally. Currently, a large amount of packet switched traffic goes over the public Internet. The Internet is organised as a club good. There is an access fee, but no further fee for its actual use. Volume metering is technically feasible, but typically only bandwidth is controlled. In the switched network, a split price is standard. There is an access fee, plus a separate fee for each call. In a club good, by definition each side pays for part of the traffic. On the Internet, the receiver pays principle is thus applied. In most countries, the switched network is governed by the caller pays principle. Under that principle, there are termination charges. Each operator has a local monopoly over its customers. There is thus the possibility that telephony will in the future be controlled by the same principles. Actually, in that case the only remaining property right would be access to the network. In the opposite case, data traffic might be contaminated by the principles currently governing switched telephony. This would presuppose that operators succeed in introducing artificial property rights for the relationship with their customers, maybe even for the individual instance of communication. Technically, there are two main opportunities for this. In switched telephony, for technical reasons it is natural to give out telephone numbers to operators, not to clients. Through these numbers, they control their customers. Voice over IP operators try to implement the same scheme for packet switched voice traffic, although here the domain name system would be natural. Domains are accorded to end users, not to operators. A second conduit for artificially introducing property rights is technical standards. They are needed for defining addressees, for the management of real-time interaction, and for the digital coding of voice signals. By way of proprietary standards, the operator gains full control. Competition policy should not only see at the establishment of these fundamental governance structures. It should also check the potential for distorting systems competition between switched and packet switched telephony. Incumbents are having a host of potential strategies for creating new barriers to entry, and for distorting actual competition. Most critical are bundling strategies. Diagonally integrated incumbents might offer their clients to carry their traffic over IP where possible, and through their traditional network otherwise. That way they could turn their customer base in the traditional networks into a barrier to entry. Currently, this strategy can fully work for mobile telephony. In fixed telephony it is more difficult to implement as long as IP addressees are not earmarked.
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