FCC abandons E911 deadline

No cutoff of customers without 911 access by Nov. 28, but VoIP providers can't market or sell in areas that can't link up.

Net phone companies won't be forced to cut off callers who can't dial into the enhanced 911 network by Nov. 28, the Federal Communications Commission announced.

Instead, the latest FCC notice (click for PDF)--issued late Monday--requires voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, providers to file a letter detailing how much of their subscriber base can receive E911 service, a next-generation network that automatically steers calls to a geographically appropriate emergency call center and identifies the caller's originating address.

Accompanying that requirement is a new condition that proved perplexing to the Net phone industry: VoIP companies are expected to stop marketing their services and accepting new customers in areas that aren't outfitted with the technology to do the necessary E911 call routing, even if the subscribers would have access to "basic" 911 service.

That means that even in the best-case scenario, about 98 million mostly rural Americans won't be able to become new subscribers to VoIP services when the FCC rules kick in, said Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the VON Coalition, which represents VoIP interests.

"The FCC's action preventing marketing of new services while E911 is being deployed is completely unprecedented," Kohlenberger said. "In the case of every other type of phone service, all of which have more subscribers without E911, policymakers have specifically not prevented them from adding new customers while the industry deploys E911."

Vonage co-founder Jeff Pulver voiced a similar reaction on his his Weblog: "I am still baffled as to why the FCC has felt compelled to single out the nascent IP-based communications industry as subject to more onerous regulation."

An FCC representative on Tuesday could not confirm that the move was unprecedented, saying it would be difficult to determine whether the agency had historically created similar rules related to 911 for other forms of phone service. She said she was aware of a rule stipulating that long-distance carriers could not market their services before receiving FCC approval to provide coverage in a particular area, and the agency "did take enforcement actions" against rule breakers in that situation.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate panel recently backed a proposal that would require VoIP providers to offer 911 service but would seem to require more flexibility from the FCC. Forcible cutoffs would be illegal, and the FCC would be allowed to waive the rules for companies that prove it unfeasible, on technical and operational levels, to provide E911 access.

According to a survey released Monday by the VON Coalition, approximately 750,000 VoIP subscribers would have lost their service under the original FCC rules adopted in May. VoIP providers have argued that full compliance would call for an unreasonably large investment in call routers for obscure locations in order to recognize the location of "nomadic" users all over the world.

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