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FAQ: FCC sets rules for VoIP 911

New FCC guidelines require Net phones to include a sticker warning that calls to 911 may not get through to a live operator.

Internet telephone service will soon come with a warning sticker.

Around Oct. 3, most U.S. voice over Internet Protocol telephones must feature a sticker warning that anyone using the phone to call 911 may not get through to a live operator, the Federal Communications Commission has ruled.

It's likely going to take a lot more than a sticker to fix VoIP's 911 problems, which some claim have had serious consequences. But the FCC has stepped in to try, with a 91-page set of rules released June 3.

An in-depth reading of the document reveals other market-changing dynamics for VoIP software, which turns a broadband Internet connection into an inexpensive home phone and, some believe, could fundamentally change the telecommunications industry.

The broadly worded FCC edict could lead to new 911 fees for consumers, while it cracks the whip on VoIP service providers, a largely unregulated industry.

What is VoIP 911's main problem, and can it be fixed?
VoIP software works on any broadband connection, so VoIP services are inherently mobile. Right now, to meet the new FCC requirements, most VoIP operators are relying on subscribers to manually enter their new addresses into a Web-based database. But the FCC will soon require an automated address-update system.

In the recently released rules, the FCC suggests several methods for tracking users' VoIP locations, including using satellite-based global-positioning systems.

Who must comply with the FCC's rules?
Essentially, every VoIP service provider with customers in the United States, including Vonage and Skype, must offer 911 and accompany those calls with the location and telephone number of the caller.

More specifically, the new rules apply to a VoIP service in which subscribers can receive calls from other VoIP service users, and in which callers can connect to traditional land lines and cellular phones. Most VoIP operators allow this in some fashion or another.

What can VoIP subscribers look for in order to make sure their service provider is complying with the rules?
The answer is pegged in part to what kind of device, if any, comes with the service. An operator has to comply with the FCC if it provides an adapter, known as an analog telephone adapter, or ATA, to connect a home phone to a broadband line. It also must comply if it provides a phone that works only over an Internet connection.

What if my service provider doesn't send me any hardware?
It may still be on the hook for compliance. The FCC definition of an adapter includes Internet-connected PCs, laptops and handheld devices with "soft phones," which are software-based VoIP phones.

So can a VoIP service provider avoid offering 911?
Yes. The requirements don't apply to areas that either don't have basic 911 service or the enhanced version that transmits the caller's address and phone number to the emergency operator. About 99 percent of the U.S. population is covered by some kind of 911 service, according to the National Emergency Number Association.

Are 911 calls over WiMax and other new wireless broadband technology exempt?
Yes, but probably not for much longer. The FCC indicates it'll be looking into those technologies in the near future, expecting that they too will be used one day to ferry VoIP calls.

How are VoIP service providers reacting to the new rules?
It's likely VoIP operators soon will ask the FCC for clarifications to the rules. They insist this would not be a delay tactic and say they fully intend to have a compliant 911 service running within 120 days. They say they just need help deciphering the dense 91-page document.

But asking for clarifications could lead the FCC to push back the enforcement deadline. On the other hand, many cable companies and other VoIP providers that restrict customers to one location, rather than let them make calls from any broadband line, have already deployed enhanced 911 services.

What companies will benefit from the FCC rules?
While it's not pointing to any one company, the FCC mentions in its rules document that some VoIP operators already get services from a combination of Level 3 Communications, Intrado, Pac-West Telecom and others to connect subscribers to landlines and cell phones. These same companies also sell access to the dedicated telephone infrastructure that serves the nation's 6,000 emergency-call centers.

Will 911 on a VoIP phone cost extra?
In some instances it already does, in the form of the regulatory fee that VoIP operators collect. Some states are also in the process of adding VoIP providers to the list of telephone operators the states are allowed to extract 911 fees from, the FCC said.

Who calls 911 on their VoIP line?
Until 2006, less than 2 percent of all 911 calls will be from VoIP lines. But a tenfold increase in VoIP 911 calls is expected by the end of next year as large numbers of homes drop regular telephone service for the VoIP alternative.