FCC requires VoIP providers to offer E911

VoIP carriers that connect to the U.S. public telephone network will be required this year to provide their customers with enhanced 911 emergency calling service, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled Thursday.

Commissioners called E911 an essential service for all telephone carriers to provide, whether the carriers use the traditional public switched telephone network or IP networks. With E911, callers dialing 911 are connected to their local emergency dispatch center, and dispatchers see the address of the callers on their computers.

"Today's action seeks to remedy a very serious problem -- one quite literally of life or death for the millions of customers that subscribe to VoIP service as a substitute for traditional phone service," said Kevin Martin, FCC chairman. "Because certain VoIP providers do not routinely connect their customers to 911 emergency operators, public safety officials across the country have been unable to address certain calls for help in a timely fashion, resulting in several tragedies. This situation is simply unacceptable."

The FCC's order requires VoIP carriers to provide their customers E911 service within five to six months. E911 must be a standard feature, not an optional feature provided by VoIP carriers. VoIP providers that do not comply could be fined or ordered to cease operations, according to the FCC.

Although some VoIP carriers cheered the ruling, not everyone was happy with it. The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a technology trade group, accused the FCC of overstepping its authority in setting a deadline for VoIP carriers to offer E911. Laws giving the FCC its authority don't allow it to require social obligations of technology companies, and customer demand is sufficient to drive adoption of E911 among VoIP carriers, said Harris Miller, ITAA president.

"However well intentioned, today's FCC ruling seems to test the outer limits of the FCC's jurisdiction," Miller said in an e-mail statement. "Congress never intended the FCC to be the 'Federal Technology Commission,' with broad authority over technology applications and services."

VoIP carriers have told the FCC of technical problems that have kept them from providing E911, with fast-growing VoIP provider Vonage complaining that incumbent telephone carriers have been slow to allow competing VoIP services access to their 911 services. But on Thursday, Vonage announced it had reached agreements with three of the four large incumbent local carriers in the U.S., with new agreements with SBC and BellSouth in addition to an existing agreement with Verizon.

Thursday's FCC order requires incumbent local carriers to open up their 911 services to VoIP providers. The United States Telecom Association, representing the major incumbent carriers, applauded the FCC decision.

In March, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a lawsuit against Vonage for what he called deceptive trade practices. Without agreements in place with incumbent local carriers, Vonage provided an alternative 911 service that customers had to activate. Abbott, in announcing his lawsuit, noted a February incident in which burglars broke into a house and wounded a mother and father while a child unsuccessfully tried to call 911 using Vonage's VoIP service. The family apparently had not signed up for 911 when prompted by Vonage.

Because VoIP services route 911 calls through IP networks instead of the traditional telephone network, some VoIP phones have phone numbers that can follow the phone wherever it's plugged in. With some VoIP providers, without access to the incumbent 911 services, dispatch centers aren't able to pinpoint the address where the VoIP call originated, unlike E911 service available with most traditional telephone service today.

Vonage praised the FCC order. "The sooner our customers get E911, the better," said Brooke Schulz, Vonage's senior vice president of communications. "We have been asking for this kind of ruling for quite some time now -- since last May, in fact."

The FCC order applies only to VoIP services that can receive calls or send calls to the public telephone network. Internet-based applications that have voice features, including instant messaging and voice chat services on gaming devices, aren't required to provide E911.

Some VoIP providers had called for the FCC to allow some exceptions to a blanket order for VoIP carriers to provide E911. Level 3, a wholesale provider of VoIP service, had wanted the FCC to delay the requirement for VoIP carriers operating in rural areas, said Charles Meyers, group vice president for marketing at Level 3. The company also wanted the FCC to exempt VoIP service with phones that can be moved and retain their phone numbers when plugged into multiple broadband connections.

Rolling out E911 service to rural areas served by VoIP could take time and significant investment, Meyers said the day before the FCC meeting. "What we don't want is an unintended consequence squelching VoIP adoption because of this order," he said Wednesday.

But Level 3 also supports the general direction toward requiring E911, because the emergency dialing service will help VoIP compete with traditional phone service, he said.

The FCC order does not include exemptions for rural service and mobile devices. Instead, it requires VoIP carriers to allow customers to change their location information so that 911 works wherever they take their VoIP phones, said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. The FCC plans to work on a future order establishing a method for customers to change their locations and have E911 work without having to report their new location, he said.

Even though Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy noted that meeting the order's requirements may not be easy for some VoIP carriers, she and other commissioners seemed to reject any arguments that some VoIP services should be exempted from E911 requirements.

"The provision of access to 911 should not be optional for any telephone service provider," said Martin, commission chairman. "We need to take whatever actions are necessary to swiftly enforce these requirements to ensure that no lives are lost due to lack of access to 911."

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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