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Feds to enforce VoIP cutoffs?

Tens of thousands of VoIP users could see their service disrupted, as FCC moves ahead with Net telephony requirements.

Despite misgivings aired by Net phone companies and more recently by U.S. senators, tens of thousands of VoIP users could see their service disrupted this week.

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled on Wednesday to begin enforcing its requirement that VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) providers using the public telephone network make sure that 100 percent of their customers know of potential limitations to accessing 911 services. Customers who haven't acknowledged those warnings are to be disconnected or, if the FCC approves, restricted from nonemergency VoIP usage.

According to industry groups and the latest FCC filings by VoIP providers, as many as 50,000 Net phone users--about half the estimate floated last month--could be disconnected or see their service curtailed this week.

Originally, the FCC said VoIP providers had to cut off service to all customers who hadn't responded affirmatively to the providers' warnings. In its most recent notice, the agency indicated that it would tolerate a so-called "soft" or "warm" disconnect, whereby all non-911 VoIP calls would be blocked but that 911 calls would continue to go to the appropriate public-safety answering point.

Appearing late last week at a Senate hearing on disaster communications, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin indicated no plans to bump the deadline again, despite concerns voiced by lawmakers about the hard cutoff requirement.

Vonage, one of the industry leaders with more than a million VoIP lines, said in a Sept. 22 filing required by the FCC that it has received acknowledgment from 98 percent of its customers and, with the FCC's consent, plans to initiate a "soft" disconnect process that would allow its customers to make outgoing 911 calls and receive all incoming calls. Other companies have suggested that they would adopt similar policies.

For some providers, disconnection is no issue. SBC Communications and Qwest Communications International, for example, reported that they have received acknowledgment from 100 percent of their customers. Time Warner Cable and Comcast said in their filings that they have received 100 percent acknowledgment through their own means--that is, they already warned of 911 limitations in the subscriber's contract.

The FCC first issued the 911 requirements in early June and set a June 29 deadline for compliance, but the decision drew an outcry from VoIP providers who found the instructions too vague. The regulators then announced that they would delay any enforcement action until Aug. 30 and, under fire again--this time with public-safety groups joining in--made an 11th-hour decision to postpone the deadline until Sept. 28.