FCC: Cut Off Non-Responding VoIP Users

The Federal Communications Commission has finally broken its silence and now says VoIP service providers must drop customers who don't reply "affirmatively" to communications about E911 service limitations. But the agency did throw providers a bone, giving them an extra month to collect the data.

The Federal Communications Commission has given VoIP providers a bit of breathing room on getting customer acknowledgements about 911 today, while at the same time making clear that providers must cut off customers who do not provide the acknowledgement.

The public “guidance” issued on July 26 gives VoIP service providers another 30 days — until August 30 — to obtain acknowledgement from subscribers that they understand limitations to the provider's 911 emergency calling services. The guidance further states that “the interconnected VoIP provider will disconnect…all subscribers from whom it has not received such acknowledgements.”

The FCC had come under significant criticism from service providers for having issued a July 29th deadline to get acknowledgment from its customers about 911 service limitations, but providing no directive on whether customers who did not reply would need to be cut off. The guidance provides clarification, but service providers are still not happy.

“Obviously, we'll comply. But I wonder whether cutting off dial tone leaves a customer in a safer position or not in terms of being able to get help when he or she needs it,” says Ravi Sakaria, VoicePulse CEO. “Any additional time allows us to go after customers as aggressively as possible, but it's unlikely you'll get everybody even in 30 days. It's likely that there will some subscribers who return home from traveling and have no service.”

The cut-off requirement will make life harder for VoIP providers. Sakaria says that VoicePulse has been “very agressive” about getting customers to reply, and that so far some 75 percent of the company's customers have done so.

“But the last 25 percent will the most difficult and 30 days more may get us to 80 percent,” he said, adding that even at such high success rate, the impact on the business will be significant. “No one factors into their business model losing 20 percent of their customers overnight.”

The 30-day extension, Sakaria said, doesn't really change things much.

“Even without the additional time we were still going to go after customers who didn't respond as aggressively as possible even after July 29,” he said. “It's not like without the guidance we were just going to stop on July 30.”

The new order does add additional reporting requirements for service providers, who will be required by August 10th to provide the FCC with a "detailed description of all actions the provider has taken to specifically advise every subscriber" of the service's E911 limitations and a report on the percentage of subscribers who have replied and an estimate of the pecentage of subscribers they do not expect acknowledgment from by Aug. 29.

“Ambiguity and uncertainty is just not a good thing in this industry,” 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 more questions the FCC can answer about what it expects and what will happen if those expectations are not met is ultimately a good thing.

"I don’t expect providers to be enthusiastic about additional regulatory obligations,” Hoffinger continued, “and while I also believe they all recognize the importance of, and are committed to, public safety, I think they would have preferred if the FCC had been more flexible about their requirements and the timing of their effectiveness. That said,” he added, “I think it’s better for everyone to know what the stakes are, in terms of what might be the consequences if certain things don’t happen when they’re supposed to happen."