FCC requires VoIP to clean up its 911 act

Net phone operators face a late September deadline to fix their 911 systems, the FCC rules.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
5 min read
The FCC on Thursday gave Net phone carriers a late September deadline to provide the same kind of 911 service available to people who call for help from landline or cell phones.

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.


What's new:
By late September, Net phone providers must offer 911 service equivalent to that available over landline or cell phones, the FCC ruled Thursday.

Bottom line:
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.

Click here for more stories on 911 via Net phones

Locating local internet providers

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 traditional phone system, 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."

Locating local internet providers

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 Vonage, the largest VoIP provider in the United States.

It couldn't be immediately determined if VoIP operators such as Skype, 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

a caller's location and call-back number to emergency services personnel before the end of the year, but didn't cite a specific date. Another operator, the much smaller SunRocket, asserted Thursday it will have a fully compliant 911 service available to every customer in the next 30 days.

"We are going to do our best to meet the mandate," said Brooke Schulz, a spokeswoman for Vonage, which has nearly 700,000 subscribers.

"The sad fact is we have spent so much time splitting hairs that we have endangered public safety."
--Michael J. Copps, FCC commissioner

Some operators are predicting they will have to scale back or otherwise alter their launch plans as a result of Thursday's ruling. AT&T's CallVantage may have to be disconnected in some areas, according to an AT&T executive speaking on condition of anonymity. America Online limited the launch of its new VoIP service only to areas where it could offer enhanced 911, the company said in remarks filed with the FCC.

Focus on the VoIP 911 issue heightened in late 2004, following a string of incidents in which VoIP subscribers couldn't get through to emergency services, some with allegedly deadly consequences. Florida resident Cheryl Waller's 3-month-old child died as a result of the delays, she told the commission Thursday.

"Consider the future of Americans, our children," she said. "A communications device, regardless of medium, should instantly be capable of connecting to 911."

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps echoed that sentiment. "The sad fact is we have spent so much time splitting hairs that we have endangered public safety," he said. "At some point, the semantic debates must end and realities must assert themselves. Today, we face up to these challenges."

The FCC mandate only adds to the ongoing pressure on VoIP operators to fix their 911 problems. Attorneys general in Texas and Connecticut are suing Vonage, alleging the company misleads customers about its 911 services.

On Thursday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and others introduced a bill mandating VoIP providers offer 911.

Currently, VoIP 911 calls are typically answered by someone in the emergency call center's administrative offices and aren't accompanied by a call-back number or the caller's location.

Callers after business hours hear a recorded message that the offices are closed and that they should call 911 if there's an emergency.

In addition to the Florida situation, problems with the patchwork VoIP 911 system have included a Houston teenager who failed to reach 911 on her Vonage line to get help for her parents who were shot during a home burglary.

VoIP operators blame 911 problems on their inability to access the telephone infrastructure--owned by Verizon Communications, Qwest Communications, SBC Communications, and BellSouth--that serve the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. In turn, those Bell companies say VoIP operators have always had access, just not under the terms they want.

"The FCC's action seems fair and demonstrates a willingness to make tough calls quickly, rather than allowing the decision-making to drag out as technology makes rules obsolete before the rules are put in place," said Glenn Reynolds, BellSouth vice president for regulatory affairs.

SBC also voiced its support for the ruling. Representatives of the other two Bell operators couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

There have also been problems with tracking people who use Internet connections in different places. With little technology available to locate VoIP callers, operators rely heavily on subscribers updating their locations, which is considered a primitive, unreliable method unlikely to meet the FCC mandate. Recognizing such limitations, the FCC in its ruling did not require VoIP operators to implement such a tracking system. Rather, the rules ask the industry to begin a more concerted effort to develop the technology for doing so.

"This whole mobile society is both a blessing and a curse. Everyone wants to do it, but nobody wants to provide the tools to manage it," said Jim Puchbauer, marketing director at Altigen Communications, a VoIP systems maker catering to small business.

In a curious twist, Qwest, which was the first to actually work with Vonage to test an enhanced 911 service nearly two years ago, has now "fallen off the radar," Vonage's Schulz said. The three other Bells have all but acquiesced to Vonage's requests for access, she said.