FCC to VoIP: ‘Be Like the Phone Company’

The Federal Communications Commission is ordering 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 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 [911] callers are not routed to emergency operators is unacceptable,” Martin led the commission in approving the ruling, which places requirements on both VoIP providers and ILECs.

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 Commission heard first-hand accounts about three well-publicized cases in Connecticut, Texas and Florida where Vonage failed to connect customers with 911 emergency dispatchers. The McLanahans of Connecticut, the Johns of Texas, and the Wallers of Florida told stories of calling 911 and either being connected to an administrative office or receiving a message that “you cannot call 911 from this phone.” The Wallers claim that their daughter died because they could not reach emergency services quickly enough.

Cheryl Waller said that “Vonage purposely deceived me” in its marketing of its 911 services. “I do not believe that connecting callers to administrative numbers is innovative,” she said, adding “One hundred and twenty days is one hundred and twenty days too many to allow these companies to advertise life-saving services that they do not have.”

The testimony set the stage for the ruling that followed. “Your stories are why we must act and not wait any longer,” said Chairman Martin. “There are too many lives at stake.”

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 competition.”

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 protection.”

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 — 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 press release.

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.

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