FCC Extends VoIP E911 Deadline

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has delayed an August 28 deadline for U.S. VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) providers to warn customers about limitations of enhanced 911 emergency dialing service, after VoIP carriers complained that tens of thousands customers could lose service next week.

The FCC ruled in June that customers who have not responded to an E911 VoIP advisory would have their service cut off, and the cut-off deadline had been August 30. The FCC on Friday said the deadline had been moved to September 28 for VoIP providers to obtain a response from all their customers saying they have read an advisory describing limitations of E911 VoIP services.

On Thursday, the VON Coalition, a VoIP provider trade group, urged the FCC to extend the August 30 service cut-off deadline. As of August 10, about 1.5 million VoIP customers had responded to the advisories, but close to 100,000 customers had not yet responded to the advisories, estimates Jim Kohlenberger, VON Coalition's executive director. VoIP providers have made multiple attempts to contact the remaining customers, he says.

Kohlenberger praises the FCC for extending the deadline. Most of those customers who haven't responded likely have 911 service on their VoIP services, and a loss of service could endanger lives, he says. "We believe most of those people have 911 service and could be put in harm's way if they haven't acknowledged it," he says.

"Soft" Disconnects

The FCC announcement Friday acknowledges "significant efforts" made by VoIP providers to gain customer responses. The FCC also asked VoIP providers to detail any plans to use so-called "soft" disconnect options for customers who have not responded to the advisories by September 28. Under a soft disconnect, all non-911 calls would go instead to the VoIP provider's customer service line, while 911 calls would continue to be routed to emergency dispatch centers.

In reports due in September, VoIP providers not planning to use soft disconnects must tell the FCC their reasons.

The FCC's Friday announcement was the second month-long extension for VoIP to gather customer responses.

Many VoIP providers have faced technology problems when attempting to connect customers to E911 service connected to the traditional fixed-line telephone network, controlled by telecom carriers that compete with VoIP providers. Some VoIP providers, including Vonage, require customers to sign up for E911 service separately from signing up for VoIP service. Among the challenges for VoIP providers: E911 service shows the emergency dispatch center the address of the caller, but VoIP users can pick up their phones and plug into a broadband network anywhere and keep the same phone number.

In March, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a lawsuit against Vonage, saying the provider had not adequately warned customers of its E911 limitations. Then in May, the FCC ordered VoIP providers to offer E911 service by late November.

While the FCC deadlines are "painful but necessary," the extension of the service cut-off deadline was a good move by the FCC, says Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. A better decision would be to find another solution besides cutting off service, he says in an e-mail.

"VoIP has been gaining steam," he says. "There are too many VoIP users who have cut their traditional phone service for turning off VoIP service to be a valid solution. While we do need to address the E911 issues, and while users need to understand the problems, cutting off their phone service is no longer an option. This is 2005, for crying out loud."

VoIP providers must have filed a progress report by August 10 to be eligible for either deadline extension. They must file further updates by September 1 and September 22, the FCC said Friday.

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