TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: FCC Backs Down Again on VOIP/911

FCC Backs Down Again on VOIP/911

Bruce Myerson (
Tue, 27 Sep 2005 18:58:39 -0500

By Bruce Meyerson, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK --The Federal Communications Commission backed off
again Tuesday on enforcing a deadline for Internet phone service
providers to disconnect all customers who haven't acknowledged that
they understand it may be hard to reach a live emergency dispatcher
when dialing 911.

The agency explained that the status reports required from every
Internet phone company last week showed that by "repeatedly prompting
subscribers through a variety of means, the majority of providers
... have obtained acknowledgments from nearly all, if not all, of
their subscribers."

The decision came a day before a deadline that would have
required Internet phone companies to cut off at least 10,000 of the
estimated 2.7 million users of the service in the United States.

The FCC said providers who have received confirmations from at
least 90 percent of their subscribers will no longer face the
disconnection requirement, but still must continue seeking the
remaining acknowledgments.

All carriers below the 90 percent threshold will have until
Oct. 31 to reach that level and avoid the disconnection requirement.

Vonage Holdings Corp., the biggest carrier with more than 1
million subscribers, told The Associated Press on Monday that 99
percent of its customer base have responded to the company's notices
about 911 risks. But that still meant that about 10,000 accounts stood
to be shut off as early as Wednesday.

The deadline, originally set for a month ago before a
last-minute reprieve by FCC, was intended as an interim safeguard
while Internet phone companies rush to comply with another FCC order
that they add full 911 capabilities by late November.

The FCC issued the order in May after a series of highly
publicized incidents in which Internet phone users were unable to
connect with a live emergency dispatch operator when calling 911.

Critics had been increasingly vocal in questioning the wisdom of
abruptly leaving users without any calling capability, particularly a
type of phone service that came through in a pinch in the chaos after
Hurricane Katrina.

Cut off from traditional and cellular phone service by the
floods after the storm, a top aid to the mayor of New Orleans managed
to re-establish communications with the outside world -- including
President Bush -- using a broadband connection and an Internet phone

"To have a system where you risk cutting customers off in such a
short time frame? It's unintended consequences," Sen. John Sununu of
New Hampshire said in a speech last week at VON, a conference that
revolves around Internet phone technology, which is also known as VoIP
or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol.

"Cutting someone off from their voice service carries enormous
risks," Sununu said.

Unlike the traditional telephone network, where phone numbers
are associated with a specific location, VoIP users can place a call
from virtually anywhere they have access to a high-speed Internet

That "roaming" flexibility, while generally viewed as a benefit,
can make it more complex to connect VoIP accounts to the computer
systems that automatically route 911 calls to the nearest emergency
dispatcher and instantly transmit the caller's location and phone
number to the operator who answers the call.

Most VoIP providers have only been able to offer a watered-down
version of 911 service that often directs emergency calls to a general
administrative phone number at a local public safety office. In many
cases, those lines are not staffed by emergency operators, and some
may even play only a recording or go unanswered, particularly during
non-peak hours.

Cable-based VoIP services have avoided the roaming issue by
tying each phone number to a specific location and emergency dispatch

But VoIP providers who allow their customers to use their
numbers in multiple locations face major challenges. They need to
adopt a technology that will send their customers into a disparate
national patchwork of 911 call-routing systems and databases. That
means they must reach an interconnection agreement with each of the
more than 1,000 local phone companies who maintain and operate those
911 systems.

While most Internet phone companies and industry observers
haven't objected to the FCC's goal, many have criticized the agency
for allowing only four months for such a young industry with limited
financial resources to overcome the assorted hurdles with providing
full 911.

"I'm not sure what the FCC was thinking when they made up their
120-day timeframe," Sununu said in his speech last week.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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