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Net phone 911 mandate may hit nomads hardest

Carriers who hand out VoIP numbers that aren't based on where customers live are the ones affected by the FCC's ruling.

Net phone operators that assign telephone numbers that don't depend on where customers actually live may be among the hardest hit by a new requirement that commercial VoIP providers offer 911.

Meanwhile, makers of game consoles and instant-messaging software that have incorporated VoIP as a feature appear for now to be untouched by Thursday's mandate from the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC, in a unanimous vote, gave what appears to be a large percentage of commercial VoIP operators about three months to have in place a service that connects 911 callers directly to an emergency dispatcher and provides dispatchers with a call back number and the caller's address. VoIP, or voice over Internet Protocol, allows for cheaper calling because it routes calls over the Internet rather than the traditional telephone network, which is heavily regulated and taxed.

The fallout is already becoming clear, even though the nitty-gritty of the decision won't be completely apparent for several days. Of the details released Thursday, the decision appears to have a big impact on "nomadic" VoIP providers, which hand out phone numbers that aren't based on where subscribers live.

"Nomadic services face major implementation challenges," FCC Commissioner Adelstein said Thursday before the 911 mandate was approved. "But it's essential to meet these obligations. It's critical we monitor developments on this front."

Being a nomad is a major draw for customers. It effectively lets someone live in one city, but have a telephone number from another area. That allows many benefits. For instance, relatives and friends from back home would have to make only a local call. VoIP services are also inherently mobile because most are available on any broadband connection, regardless of its location.

But these two advantages over traditional telephony create problems for police dispatchers. Under these conditions, someone calling 911 from their VoIP line could likely be steered to an emergency calling center that is thousands of miles away, slowing emergency response.

The solution for nomadic VoIP providers is to spot a moving target on the Internet, as the FCC indicated providers will soon have to do. But that's beyond the expertise of most of them. Deep-pocketed VoIP operators like Vonage, which recently got a $200 million cash infusion from investors, and cable operators can afford to build their own systems, or hire companies like Level 3 Communications to do most of the heavy lifting. Most other VoIP operators cannot.

That is likely to force some changes, morphing many freewheeling feature-rich VoIP companies into more staid ones. That change is already happening. SunRocket, a small Net phone operator, said Thursday it no longer assigns its customers telephone numbers that don't correspond to where they live, a representative said.

"Until the infrastructure is available, some might consider that a more limited service, but that is how seriously we take the 911 issue," said SunRocket spokesman Brian Lustig.

It remains to be seen whether others will follow suit.

Meanwhile, game consoles that have VoIP features for use during Internet-connected play appear to be unaffected by the new regulation. The chief reason being that Xbox Live players who want to taunt an opponent don't generally do so over the traditional phone network, the FCC said.

However, it is uncertain whether instant messaging will have to offer 911 capabilities. IM software also typically features VoIP capabilities that allow for calls to the traditional phone network, so under one reading of the FCC rules they would have to be in compliance. Yet the FCC made it a point to single out IM makers as being excluded on Thursday.