There has been some publicity of late about the creation of the VoIP Alliance - a not-for-profit industry organisation being formed by a group of medium-sized, independent Australian VoIP providers.
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The Alliance has been proposed because of what its members believe is a lack amongst current industry organisations in the areas of:
(a) Providing education and awareness to end users;
(b) Protecting the consumer;
(c) Promoting the Voice-over IP industry in Australia.
We strongly believe in the value of the Communications Alliance and its VoIP Working Group in creating a unified voice for the industry and in its initiative to ensure all providers abide by its customer protection regulations.
However, the industry is at a turning point as evidenced by the mushrooming number of VoIP providers and the predicted uptake of VoIP services among Australians.
As at 23 March 2007, analysts Market Clarity identify some 259 local VoIP providers in existence and a predicted boom in VoIP services from 1.4 million in June 2007 to the 4.5 million in June 2011.
These sorts of figures strongly suggest that there is an immediate need for a dedicated organisation to proactively manage the challenges such rapid growth generates and ensure that Australia has a robust, self-regulated, thriving VoIP industry that provides a level of consumer education and protection second to none.
Providing education and awareness to end users
It is the responsibility of business and consumer-grade VoIP service providers to ensure customers understand what they are buying and more importantly provide the most appropriate service for their requirements. Otherwise, buyers will end up getting caught with a system possibly sold by an unscrupulous operator that does an unsatisfactory job.
In order to educate Australians on both the benefits and risks of VoIP, the Alliance will be holding regular monthly meetings to discuss the most effective way to reach end users. Whether through joint marketing, end user seminars, roadshows or other initiatives, it is incumbent upon the VoIP industry to provide comprehensive education and awareness.
SETEL, the small business telecommunications industry group openly advocates that end users should conduct self assessments prior to investment to gauge whether VoIP is suitable.
In line with this, the Alliance will also create a VoIP assessment tool, available to each member, to allow clients to honestly assess their own needs and the services offered by each member. The tool will take into consideration factors such as: access to IT support, call patterns, existing network capabilities, future expansion and scalability, interoperability and budget.
To ensure the ongoing development of its education and awareness campaign, the Alliance will meet on a monthly basis giving all members the opportunity to develop initiatives which help end users in their region.
Protecting the consumer
While VoIP providers would argue that voice over IP is maturing rapidly, for end users the technology is still new and there are concerns about what protection is in place if a VoIP system goes awry.
The VoIP Alliance proposes the creation of an easily recognised qualification which all members would be required to meet. Upon seeing that a VoIP provider has the qualification or seal, the consumer could be confident that certain standards of support, disclosure, and quality are met.
Some of the more pressing concerns of customers include:
- Quality issues
- Clarity around whom the customer is actually dealing with and how they can be contacted
- VoIP equipment interoperability
- Technical support levels
- Misleading, incomplete or false advertising
- Levels of security
- A clear route to complaint resolution and escalation
- Guaranteed access to emergency services
To ensure that VoIP Alliance members stick to these standards, the Alliance will actively promote the standard to end users as being the primary criterion for the selection of a VoIP provider. Consumers will be advised to avoid providers who do not have the seal.
If a member fails to meet the standard then the Alliance's seal of approval is withdrawn until it can be proven that they have lifted their game.
Promoting the Voice-over IP industry in Australia
Much work has been done to promote the value of voice-over IP in Australia. However, more can be done.
As highlighted by SETEL, a small business and telecommunications advocacy group, a lack of consumer safeguards, the unexpected complexities of VoIP and poor customer service are becoming issues for end users and a deterrent to the adoption of VoIP across the country.
In its own research, the industry group is finding that unrealistic expectations have been set in the consumer space with residential users discovering that VoIP products are not always a simple 'plug and play' system.
Lacking on-hand IT staff, small businesses are also struggling with the resolution of VoIP-related technical problems when they arise.
Business and residential users also feel that the VoIP industry lacks reliable public measures for the performance of service providers.
As such, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has since December called for new VoIP laws to protect consumer rights. These laws would impose on VoIP providers the requirement to provide customer services and to fix faults within minimum timeframes.
Clearly, there is a need for a voice representative of VoIP providers to address issues such as these before they bring the VoIP industry into disrepute and over-regulation.
The presence of an industry seal of approval will also go a long way to addressing education, awareness and protection of end users as well as promoting the VoIP industry as being responsible.
Over the years Communications Alliance has done a great deal of fine work across all of its many, many interests. We believe that the VoIP Alliance will enhance and complement that activity by further educating Australians on the benefits of VoIP, assisting with the essential enforcement of regulations to protect the consumer and ultimately driving the industry forward.