By CAROLYN SCHUK
The Federal Communications Commission unanimously ruled to require
VoIP service providers to offer 911 service similar to that offered by
telecom giants such as SBC and Verizon in a mere 120 days.
Industry advocates say the action is anti-competitive, will prove
costly to consumers and actually stifles the type of innovation that
could lead to more robust and efficient emergency calling services.
The action marks a clear departure from previous FCC policy to allow
VoIP to develop as an emerging technology unfettered by federal and
state regulation. This is the first major VoIP-related ruling handed
down by the commission since President Bush appointed Kevin Martin to
replace VoIP-friendly Michael Powell as FCC chief in March.
Saying that 'the situation where  callers are not routed to
emergency operators is unacceptable,' Martin led the commission in
approving the ruling, which places requirements on both VoIP providers
First, all VoIP providers must deliver 911 services and deliver 911
calls to 911 emergency operators specifically targeting recent
situations where 911 calls were routed to administrative numbers.
Second, recognizing the technical limitations inherent in nomadic VoIP
services, providers must give customers a way to update their
information in emergency calling databases and inform them of any
limitations of their 911 service.
Third, the item requires ILECs to provide access to their 911
infrastructure to any telephone carrier.
Finally, VoIP providers must comply with the order within 120 days and
submit a letter detailing their compliance within that time.
The FCC's view is clearly that if it walks like a duck and quacks like
a duck, it is a duck. This was expressed most pointedly by
Commissioner Michael Copps, "For so many years the commission has
engaged in word-parsing and exegesis splitting hairs about what is
a phone service and what is an information service that we have
endangered public safety.
While the FCC presumably is acting in the interest of U.S. consumers,
the move could drive prices up and customer choice down by making it
more difficult for smaller, more innovative providers to enter and
compete in the market.
The decision 'has the potential to hasten the move toward the
traditional players and cable companies,' says Kevin Mitchell,
Infonetics Directing Analyst, Service Provider Voice and Data.
Already some providers are talking about curtailing service as a
result of the proposed decision. "If we can't provide 911 [in the
customer's area] it is our intention not to allow customers to sign
up," says Paul Erikson, SunRocket co-founder.
Ultimately, the ruling might very well be counterproductive by tying
VoIP to an antiquated system.
"If they let the industry grow the way it has been," says Ravi
Sakaria, VoicePulse CEO, "it's likely we would develop a solution
that's better than what we have today."
Because VoIP is based on Internet Protocol, it could potentially offer
a much richer 911 service. For example, in the case of elderly or
disabled people, emergency services could receive information about
the person's medical condition before arriving on the scene.
Other issues posing a challenge to VoIP providers are cost and timing.
"They are going to require in an unreasonable time that providers
interface with ILECs," says Ravi Sakaria, VoicePulse CEO. "The
cell phone industry has had 15 years to get it together. We're being
required to do it in 120 days."
But Sakaria continues, "it doesn't require ILECs to offer this at a
reasonable price. It's a weapon the ILECs can wield to eliminate
There's also a liability issue involved in the order.
"VoicePulse has made it abundantly clear to customers that we don't
provide this [911 service] to avoid liability," Sakaria says. Under
the proposed requirements we'd be forced to provide something
that's not true 911 and open ourselves up to liability. Basically,
we're being forced to increase our liability without any
Canada has already tackled the VoIP 911 problem in a way that might
supply an example for the U.S.
In April, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications
Commission (CRTC) mandated that providers offering fixed VoIP service
that can only be used from a specific location offer 911 emergency
calling at the same level of 9-1-1 emergency service that is provided
by the incumbent telephone companies to their existing customers
within 90 days from the date of this decision, according to a CRTC
However, the order exempted nomadic VoIP services -- those that can be
used from any broadband internet connection -- from this requirement,
specifying that these providers must offer an interim solution
'comparable to Basic 9-1-1 service' within 90 days. The CRTC also
ruled on May 12 that telecommunications regulations are only
applicable to companies that offer fixed service.
How to Distribute VoIP Throughout a Home:
If you live in Michigan, subscribe to the MI-Telecom group: