In one of the biggest challenges yet for the young VoIP industry, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously that Net phone operators must be able to steer 911 calls to the geographically appropriate emergency call center. In addition, the calls themselves must be accompanied by the originating address and phone number, the FCC said. The operators will have 120 days to comply after the ruling is published, which is expected in the next few days.
By late September, Net phone providers must offer 911 service equivalent to that available over landline or cell phones, the FCC ruled Thursday.
Emergency calls over Internet phone systems aren't fully reliable. The ruling is a step toward fixing the system, but technical and political issues remain.
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The commission is responding to concerns from lawmakers and the public about a growing number of U.S. residents who use VoIP services. VoIP, or voice over Internet Protocol, allows a broadband connection to double as a phone line, and Net phone calling plans are cheaper than regular landline plans. But because the calls aren't routed through the, carriers must engineer a way to get them onto the 911 infrastructure serving the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. That task involves many technical, business and political hurdles.
"While they seem functionally the same, many (VoIP) callers find that they can't reach local emergency operators," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday. "This situation is unacceptable. People have a reasonable expectation that when they dial 911, they are connected to the emergency operator."
The new rules will have the greatest impact on commercial VoIP operators that consider themselves a replacement for local and long-distance service from traditional operators. This group includes, the largest VoIP provider in the United States.
It couldn't be immediately determined if VoIP operators such as, which don't market themselves as a replacement service because the calls are predominantly between computers, are excluded from the rules. The FCC decided that any operator that connects to the traditional phone network would fall under the rule--that is, essentially the entire VoIP industry. In a statement, Skype said it is "working with the FCC to develop appropriate emergency response solutions for IP-based communications services."
VoIP plans fixed in one location, similar to the versions sold by cable operators Cox Communications and Comcast, would also be required to comply. Most of these providers already offer so-called enhanced 911.
"It's likely something we would already comply with," said Mike Pacifico, marketing director for Cox Digital Phone.
A big question now is whether VoIP operators can make the deadline. Vonage, which now has 911 agreements in place with three of the four Bells, said Thursday it will be able to deliver