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FCC requirement could strand VoIP customers

As many as 100,000 Net phone subscribers who haven't formally acknowledged 911 limitations could be cut off next week.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
As many as 100,000 Internet phone customers who haven't formally acknowledged possible obstacles to making 911 calls could find their service disconnected starting next week.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission plans to begin enforcing its requirement that Net phone services that connect to the public telephone network--known as "interconnected" services--receive acknowledgment from 100 percent of their customers about 911 limitations.

That means customers who haven't responded affirmatively by Aug. 29 must be cut off, the FCC said in a document released at the end of July (click for PDF).

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An FCC representative on Thursday indicated no plans to alter the deadline.

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About 1.5 million VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) customers have received notification of the limits and made the necessary acknowledgments, according to reports the FCC required providers to file by Aug. 10, said Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the Voice on the Net Coalition, which represents more than a dozen companies in the VoIP sector. Many of the 96 companies that filed reported affirmative response rates of between 80 percent and 90 percent, a number that has likely increased in the last couple of weeks, he said.

But that still leaves an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 residential subscribers who could lose their service, Kohlenberger said, sparking concern from the industry that the seemingly hard-and-fast cutoff rule might do more harm than good.

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"It could potentially leave consumers in harm's way when they return from vacation and have to use their phone in an emergency and it's not available," Kohlenberger said.

Aside from vacationers, Kohlenberger said he suspects that some subscribers have not responded to the notices because they already received some sort of 911 service through their Internet phones and think they're immune.

At issue is access to the enhanced 911, or E911, system, which allows emergency operators to link a caller's physical location with the phone number used to dial for help. While conventional telephones in most areas of the country have had that capability for years, not all VoIP providers have the technology in place to route their calls to that system. Cell phone companies also have requested more time to upgrade their products.

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Time Warner Cable, which has more than 600,000 VoIP customers, "has always provided enhanced 911 with its digital phone service," according to a company statement. Comcast's Digital Voice service also has access to the E911 network, but the company has still sent out warnings about potential limitations. "Some customers have complained to us about the frequency with which we've contacted them on this issue--which suggests that they are reading the supplemental information but choose not to respond," said Comcast spokeswoman Jeanne Russo.

That's why the FCC needs to rethink the penalty for not responding to the notices, Kohlenberger said. "It would be tragic if a customer who today may have E911 as a part of their VoIP service had it shut off and then attempted to use that service in an emergency," members of the VON Coalition wrote in a letter mailed Thursday to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

The letter requested that the FCC extend the acknowledgment deadline until the end of November. Citing concerns about communications during hurricane season, which lasts until Nov. 30, the Florida Public Service Commission also urged the FCC to abandon the disconnection penalty or extend the deadline.

"While there are likely instances where consumers may not be able to directly access emergency services through 911, at least they continue to have some telecommunications capability to contact emergency responders by means other than 911," Florida PSC Chairman Braulio Baez wrote in a letter dated Aug. 16. "Disconnecting consumers removes even this option."

Under the rules, interconnected VoIP providers must notify all customers of potential problems associated with accessing the E911 network and send out warning labels to stick on their VoIP equipment. The companies must also keep a record of each individual who has acknowledged understanding of the limitations.

The FCC has also set a Nov. 28 deadline by which VoIP providers must be able to connect all Internet phone calls to the E911 network. That mandate has also prompted appeals and criticism from the industry, which claims it needs more time to secure contracts and deploy the necessary equipment.

The rules don't apply to noninterconnected services that supply computer-to-computer calling and do not link up to the public telephone network. Skype, a company whose service falls into that category, "makes very clear that we do not provide emergency or 911 access," said company spokeswoman Kelly Larabee.

CNET News.com's Ben Charny contributed to this report.