There was a time when telecom was pretty simple. A phone was a phone and a TV was TV.
That's how it was in 1968 when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was created.
Today, as new hybrid technologies like the recent proliferation of Internet telephone services become available, the CRTC doesn't seem to know where its regulatory jurisdiction ends.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows users to talk to each other over high-speed Internet connections.
The most popular service, Skype ( www.skype.com ), was invented by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the creators of the KaZaA peer-to-peer file-sharing service.
The service makes it free to call any other computer in the world and has attracted almost 3 million users in North America and over 30 million worldwide since its launch in August 2003. Skype's biggest competitor, Vonage, has about 550,000 users but charges around $24.99 a month for the service.
In February of 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that computer-to-computer VoIP services like Skype do not fall under the category of phone services and are thus exempt from normal taxes and regulations.
In September of that year, the CRTC cobbled together a hearing of its own to categorize VoIP start-ups here in Canada.
The CRTC issued a preliminary ruling that classified digital voice services as essentially the same thing as a telephone services, which meant they could be regulated by the commission. But the cable companies weren't too happy about this, so the CRTC promised to do a bit more research.
In the absence of clear regulations, there's been a flurry of recent activity in Canada designed to test the market before the CRTC puts out its next ruling, expected before May 12.
To prod the CRTC into action, Telus has filed an application to get Shaw Communications to stop offering VoIP service in Calgary.
Bell Canada announced it would launch a trial run of VoIP service in a few cities in Quebec, but Cogeco Cable and Quebecor Media have asked that Bell's new Internet phone service be banned until the CRTC knows what's going on. Last month AOL Canada also jumped into the fray with a VoIP service.
As new services like this blur the technological boundaries, regulators scramble to keep up with the implications. A high-profile case in Texas in March centred around a family subscribing to Vonage who dialled 911 during an emergency only to find that 911 access was an extra service. The court subsequently ruled that VoIP services have to provide 911 access automatically.
The CRTC followed suit on April 4, ruling that all Canadian VoIP providers need to do the same. But because the CRTC isn't even sure it is has jurisdiction over these companies, the ruling seems a little toothless.
As soon as the CRTC wraps its head around this, the next innovation will set them scrambling again. Skype announced last week that it's launching Skype In, a service that will let users route their calls from anywhere in the world through their home number.
The real treat will come when the companies seamlessly meld their free VoIP services with hand-held wireless gadgets. Then you'll be able to talk to anyone anywhere in the world over the Internet for free.
But don't expect the CRTC to let that happen.