August 26, 2005 11:24 AM PDT

FCC extends E911 deadline for VoIP users

Thousands of Internet phone users who have not yet acknowledged limitations to their providers' 911 service will get an extra month before their service is cut off.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission said it would extend the deadline another 30 days, to Sept. 28, 2005, for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers to notify all their customers of the limitations of E911 service and for customers to acknowledge the notification.

The FCC was set to begin enforcing its requirement starting next week that Net phone services connected to the public telephone network--known as "interconnected" services--receive acknowledgment from 100 percent of their customers about the limitations of so-called enhanced 911, or E911, service.

About 1.5 million VoIP customers have received notification of the limits and made the necessary acknowledgments, according to FCC reports. But industry groups estimate that as many as 100,000 residential VoIP subscribers haven't formally acknowledged possible pitfalls in E911 access.

The FCC deadline has sparked concern from the industry that the seemingly hard-and-fast cutoff rule might do more harm than good, leaving some customers who were unaware of the requirement suddenly stranded.

Several groups including the Voice on the Net Coalition, which represents more than a dozen companies in the VoIP sector, sent a letter to the FCC this week requesting that the acknowledgement deadline be extended to Nov. 30. The Florida Public Service Commission also urged the FCC to abandon the disconnection penalty or extend the deadline.

At issue is access to the enhanced 911, or E911, system, which allows emergency operators to link a caller's physical location with the phone number used to dial for help. While conventional telephones in most areas of the country have had that capability for years, not all VoIP providers have the technology in place to route their calls to that system. Cell phone companies also have requested more time to upgrade their products.

Many analysts say that cutting off phone service is not the best solution because most people using VoIP services today have stopped subscribing to traditional phone services. As a result, if the VoIP service is cut off, they won't have any phone service.

This is great news," said Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industdry analyst. "But better would be to find another solution and within the 30 days. 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."

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Options, not deadlines
In the beginnings of VoIP, the FCC should have mandated a two-tier service level - BASIC (no 911) and ENHANCED (completely e911 compliant). The misunderstandings, lawsuits, and deadlines we now see today are the direct result of the FCC's inability to tackle this problem early on, leaving a confusing and variable "middle-ground" of 911 scenarios. And, they KNEW it was coming.

Since some VoIP providers are already e911 compliant, a 2-tier scenario would allow market pressure, not mandates, to determine who offers what. And consumers wouldn't have cut-offs to worry about, they'd have 2 distinct "options" to consider - a provider who offers no 911 service at all, or a provider who offers 911 service as the term "911" is traditionally understood.

I'm surprised that no one has suggested this approach. I suspect most VoIP providers would love it ... and most consumers, too.

When life is at stake, there is NO acceptable "middle-ground" for emergency service. That's what needs to be addressed.
Posted by AlecWest (84 comments )
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