VoIP Providers Worry as FCC Clams Up

Service providers are scrambling to meet a July 29 federal deadline to get "affirmative acknowledgment" from their customers about VoIP's 911 service limitation. So will they have to cut-off subscribers that don't respond? No one knows, and the FCC, which did an abrupt about face when it imposed strict 911 regulations on VoIP last month, is silent on the matter.

Bewildered US-based VoIP service providers are scrambling amid confusion to meet a July 29th federal deadline requiring them to get formal acknowledgment from their customers about emergency 911 calling limitations.

According to the FCC ruling — issued June 3 and published in the Federal Register on June 29 — providers must advise all subscribers of any 911 service limitations and get “affirmative acknowledgment” that customers understand that VoIP 911 service is not the same as landline 911 by July 29.

The ruling does not address whether VoIP providers will have to cut customers off if that acknowledgement isn't received. And the FCC has refused to offer any kind of clarification, leaving service providers, concerned that a significant portion of their customer base will disregard repeated contact attempts, in the dark.

“We're running a business and we need a definite answer, absolute clarity from the FCC,” said Ravi Sakaria, CEO of VoicePulse. “We've had to spend money to find out the answers, money that would have been spent improving service.”

Sakaria and other service providers are bracing themselves for an expected response rate that falls far short of their total customer base.

“If you get 60 percent of customers to respond that's good,” said Sakaria. “You could tell people that their house is burning down and by clicking on this link you can stop it and only 60 percent of them would respond.”

Direct marketing experts believe that a 60 percent response rate is optimistic.

“Never, not even close,” said Diane Robinette, President of Market4Demand, a San Francisco, CA-based marketing consulting firm. “Our experience is that even with a clean, well-qualified list, 15 to 20 percent of the emails bounce back, 15 to 18 percent are opened and 1.5 percent of the recipients actually click through. If we hit in that range we're happy.”

Robinette said that VoIP service providers are “going to have to incent customers — negatively or positively — to respond.”

According to to Joan Citelli, Packet8 Director of Communications, the company has “gotten about a 50 percent response rate” from its agressive email and direct telephone efforts. “It looks like we're getting a pretty good response rate,” Citelli said.

So what happens to those customers who don't respond? The FCC isn't saying.

When asked to define what the agency considers to be “affirmative acknowledgement” and the steps VoIP service providers are required to take if it is not received by July 29, FCC Spokesman Mark Wigfield refused to answer. Repeated calls to other FCC officials seeking answers went unreturned.

Service providers are already reeling from an abrupt change from its “hands-off” policies towards VoIP when the FCC slapped the industry with severe regulations related to emergency calling. Now, with little guidance from the FCC, they have been forced to rely on their own interpretations of the ruling.

Some believe that the FCC is poised to force providers to cut off service to customers who do not answer the notification. Some say that FCC is unlikely to go that far. And at least one major VoIP service provider plans to shut off customers who don't reply to their notification.

“What clearly the FCC wants is providers to make a strong effort to contact customers,” says telecommunications Attorney John Nakahata, of the Washington, DC-based law firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, whose clients include wholesale VoIP provider Level3.

“What I've heard from members of the FCC staff,” Nakahata says, “is that they expect that providers will try to contact customers multiple times through multiple modes. I don't think they would force providers to cut people off.”

Inferring that VoIP providers must cut off service on July 29 to customers who don't respond “would be a very draconian reading of the order,” says Attorney Roy Hoffinger, who is in the anti-trust and telecommunications practice of the Denver office of Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, whose clients include telecom giant Qwest.

“The idea of cutting customers off from service is almost universally frowned upon in almost every other context,” Hoffinger says. However, he adds, “this is such a politically charged issue and providers would be wise to hedge their bets.”

Santa Clara, CA-based Packet8 isn't taking any chances and will cut off outgoing call service to subscribers that don't respond by the July 29 deadline, according to Citelli.

“Our lawyers say that we have to cut customers off if there is no acknowledgement,” said Citelli.

Packet8 recently emailed subscribers about conditions limiting E911 service, requesting them to click on a link to Packet8's web site to acknowledge receipt.

“We're sending voicemail to customers that haven't responded,” says Citelli. “When they pick up the phone they will be prompted to respond through the IVR system. They have to do that or they can't make the call.”

Other VoIP providers, including VoicePulse, have not made a final decision about customer cut-offs.

“We thought that we were doing the responsible thing from day one,” said Sakaria. “In terms of 911 service, we try to make it abundantly clear” that VoicePulse “does not offer traditional 911 calling.”

Nevertheless, VoicePulse has put all of its service improvement efforts — including E911 service implementation — on hold for two weeks while the company builds the infrastructure to capture and track customer acknowledgements.

Industry giant Vonage has not made a final decision on customer cut-offs, either. “We're open for discussions with the FCC,” says Brooke Schultz, Vonage Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications. “The order doesn't contemplate that [cutting service] and there are conflicting opinions.”

Recent e-mail communications and direct pre-recorded telephone calls to customers on the subject say that, in the absence of an acknowledgement, Vonage “may indeed be forced to restrict their service should the FCC require us to do so.”

“We don't know what we're going to be forced to do,” said Schultz.

Some VoIP providers that are probably already in compliance with the FCC order are nevertheless taking a “belt and suspenders” approach.

McLean, VA-based Lingo's initial sign-up process advises customers about the difference between the company's emergency calling service and conventional E911 service, according to Doug Weeks, Lingo Vice President and General Manager.

“Our sign-up requires proactive acknowledgement,” says Weeks. “We want to let people know that Lingo's emergency calling is not the same as landline E911 calling in more than the 'terms and conditions.'”

Nevertheless, Lingo is reaffirming that customers understand this, asking them to respond to an email and, if there is no response, calling customers directly.

But whether Lingo will cut off service to non-complying customers is a question that Weeks says he doesn't have the answer to. “Our intent is to get to all our customers,” he says, adding “our legal department is still working on that one.”