VoIP Firms Don't Answer FCC's 911 Call

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Looking to sign up with an Internet telephone company? Be careful about the one you pick. Many providers do not deliver enhanced 911 service, and some that fall into this group continue to sell to new customers in seeming violation of Federal Communications Commission rules.

Last year the FCC set strict rules requiring voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers to offer enhanced 911 (E911) service to new and existing customers, and banning companies from advertising services that don't include full E911 functionality. The term "enhanced 911" is something of a misnomer, since it merely gives VoIP customers the same features that standard 911 service on most landline connections provides: a direct hookup to emergency personnel who can see a physical address and a callback number. When the rules mandating enhanced 911 were promulgated, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin characterized the inability of some VoIP providers to provide E911 as a "very serious problem, one quite literally of life or death for the millions of customers that subscribe to VoIP service as a substitute for traditional phone service."

Six months after the rule went into effect, half of the 200 US VoIP providers that submitted compliance letters to the FCC stated that they offered E911 service to 90 percent or more of their existing customer bases. But many Net phone companies appear not to be abiding by the FCC rules, by continuing to market and sell service without E911 support. And finding Net phone companies that offer FCC-compliant E911 service can be more difficult than cracking the Da Vinci code.

Playing by the Rules

Some Net phone companies play by the FCC's rules. SunRocket and ViaTalk, for example, sign up new customers only if they can give them E911 capabilities.

Providers such as Lightyear Network Solutions, however, may be risking the FCC's wrath by offering something other than full E911 service to some new customers in locations where E911 is available for landline phones.

Other companies, like MyPhoneCompany.com, make E911 an option, which the FCC does not permit (such service is supposed to be mandatory for all phones). And a few companies, like BroadVoice, offered no 911 service at all when we last checked for this report.

"We are seeing a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go," says Patrick Halley, government affairs director at the National Emergency Number Association, which promotes implementation of enhanced 911 systems.

The FCC Lays Down the Law

In 2005 the inability or unwillingness of some VoIP providers to offer 911 services prompted safety proponents to call the lack of 911 support unsafe; they blamed a number of high-profile deaths on callers' inability to reach 911 services. The negative publicity spurred public awareness of the problem and prompted the FCC to set strict VoIP 911 rules.

In May 2005, the FCC issued "E911 Requirements for IP-Enabled Service Providers," which took effect in November 2005. Central to those requirements are rules stipulating that VoIP providers offer E911 service to all customers and that providers give emergency operators a callback number and the physical location of any 911 caller. The only exception to the ban on selling VoIP without E911 support is when the customer lives in an area that doesn't have 911 service available for landline phones.

Faced with having to disconnect millions of VoIP customers, several Net phone companies asked the FCC to postpone or waive the E911 rules. In response, the FCC agreed not to force providers to disconnect existing customers; the FCC's ban on marketing and selling VoIP services without E911 to new customers, however, remains in place.

If a VoIP provider fails to offer E911 services in a location where it is available to competing landline phone companies, it is violating the applicable rule, according to the FCC. Such a provider may be subject to FCC penalties that include a substantial fine and (in some cases) forfeiture of the provider's FCC license, according to the E911 rule.

"Selling VoIP service with no 911 or E911 capabilities is not acceptable to the FCC and shouldn't be to any company with a conscience," says Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), a coalition of public safety workers. APCO is pressuring the FCC to enforce its rule and penalize companies that, according to APCO, are violating it.

Samir Jain, communications and Internet law attorney at the firm WilmerHale says that, for many VoIP firms with roots as freewheeling Internet startups, the FCC rules have been a harsh wake-up call. "Some of these companies are not used to anyone trying to regulate them," Samir says. Furthermore, he notes, complying with the FCC's E911 rules is neither easy nor cheap.

On the other hand, enhanced 911 service isn't merely an option that providers can decide to offer or not to offer. "VoIP companies have to sell service with E911, or they are exposing themselves to significant risk of FCC enforcement action," says Mike Hazzard, a telecom lawyer with the law firm Womble Carlyle.

A Marketing Mess

BroadVoice, a VoIP provider based in Billerica, Massachusetts, sells service without 911 or E911 support. In its terms of service, the company states: "You may not use the service or devices to call for emergency assistance by dialing 911." Gene Cornfield, the company's vice president of marketing and business development, explains that BroadVoice is still updating its network to meet FCC compliance, and he acknowledges that it doesn't currently offer 911 service.

"We want to be up-front with our customers," Cornfield says. But when asked why he was selling service in seeming violation of the FCC rules, Cornfield declined to comment.

VoIP provider MyPhoneCompany offers E911 service, but lets customers opt not to get it.
VoIP provider MyPhoneCompany offers E911 service, but lets customers opt not to get it.
MyPhoneCompany offers E911 capabilities, but only to customers in some service-area locations. In areas where E911 service is available, MyPhoneCompany gives customers the option of declining E911 and thereby avoiding a $15 one-time E911 activation fee and a $1.50 monthly E911 charge. Accepting this option, according to MyPhoneCompany's sign-up page, means that you "will not be able to contact emergency 911 personnel using [your] MyPhoneCompany phone line." MyPhoneCompany did not return e-mail messages or telephone calls seeking comment on this policy.

Interim 911

VoIP providers like Lightyear and VoiceStick are taking a third approach. These firms continue to sell VoIP services to some customers despite not providing them with E911 capabilities.

Lightyear doesn't offer 911 or E911 service with its XStream VoIP Basic service plan.
Lightyear doesn't offer 911 or E911 service with its XStream VoIP Basic service plan.
"We are working diligently to offer 911 service to our customers around the country," says John Greive, general council for Lightyear. According to Lightyear's terms of service, "Lightyear XStream VoIP Plus service will allow you to call 911 and reach the 911 emergency operator. The Lightyear XStream VoIP Basic service does not currently support emergency calling (911/E911)." Greive says his company has not been able to find a viable solution to its 911 problem.

Paul Arena, president of VoiceStick's parent company, i2Telecom, says that the company will not sell service to anyone it can't offer E911 capabilities to. When we posed as prospective customers, though, VoiceStick's sales staff told us that the company could not provide E911 support in our calling area--but that it would still sell us VoIP service.

Vonage, the largest VoIP provider, declined to comment for this story. However, the company's terms of service state that, in areas where it can't provide E911, it offers a version of the 911 service in which the "local emergency operator answering the call will not have your call back number or your exact location, so you must be prepared to give them this information."

VoIP Firms Ask for Slack

Since November, 39 VoIP companies have filed paperwork with the FCC requesting extensions to give them more time to comply with the FCC rule, according to the FCC's Enforcement Bureau. The FCC says that it has neither granted nor denied any of these requests. Filing a waiver request for more time does not free a VoIP service from its obligation to abide by the FCC's rules, an FCC spokesperson notes.

Enhanced 911 is a nationwide system that relies on 6200 public safety answering points (PSAPs) to field all E911 calls. But VoIP providers are being denied access to some PSAPs by local phone companies, according to Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the Voice on the Net Coalition, a group that represents the VoIP industry. PSAPs are typically controlled by incumbent phone carriers that, VoIP providers charge, are putting up roadblocks to forestall VoIP competition. Still, a Vonage press release announces that the service has access to more than 4700 PSAPs, or 80 percent of its customers.

Two Congressional bills currently under consideration, HR 5252 and S. 1063, would give VoIP providers more leeway in offering E911. Both would require landline phone companies to open up access and sell 911 services to VoIP firms.

"Calling 911 is the most important call you'll ever make in your life," Kohlenberger says, "And we are working fast to make sure that call gets through." He believes that as long as VoIP providers demonstrate good-faith efforts to become compliant, the FCC probably won't crack down on noncompliant providers. By comparison, he says, the wireless industry has struggled for more than 10 years to offer E911. Although the FCC ordered wireless providers to offer E911 service in 1994, a dozen years later they provide E911 coverage to only half of the United States, Kohlenberger says.

But NENA technical issues director Roger Hixson points out that user expectations aren't the same for VoIP as for wireless phones. "When someone replaces a landline phone with an Internet phone, they expect 911 to work just the same." In contrast, he says, consumers think of wireless phones as being a different product category.

It's Your Dime

Today 6 million U.S. households subscribe to VoIP, according to a Gartner Research report, which predicts that the number will jump to 48 million by 2010.

But not everyone is sold on VoIP. Nearly a third of consumers who expressed reservations about VoIP services cited technical concerns--including anxiety over the reliability of 911 services--as the primary reason they weren't interested in a Net phone, according to the Gartner report.

Those concerns seem well founded.

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