News

FCC Hits VoIP with 911 Mandates

5/19/2005 8:06 AM Eastern

In March, Cheryl Waller’s three-year-old daughter stopped breathing and died within minutes.

The Florida mother tried to call for an ambulance, but the 911 service provided by Vonage Holdings Corp., an innovative voice-over-Internet-protocol phone service, routed her call to a recorded message that kept telling her to hang up and call 911.

“I dialed 911 several times. I was unable to reach emergency services of any kind,” an emotional Waller explained Thursday at a public meeting of the Federal Communications Commission.

Shocked by Waller’s story and others like it, the FCC unanimously adopted rules moments later that would give Vonage, cable companies and similar VoIP providers just 120 days to offer a robust emergency 911 service to help avoid a repetition of the Waller baby tragedy.

“The experiences demonstrate why the commission must act now and why we can’t wait any longer,” said FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who pushed to expand 911 rules in a sign that he won’t let the Internet’s libertarian ethos jeopardize public safety. “There are just too many lives at stake today.”

Among other things, the rules will require covered VoIP providers to deliver all 911 calls to the customer’s local emergency operators. Some VoIP 911 traffic flows into administrative lines, which can shut down at night.

VoIP providers must provide emergency operators with the customer’s callback number and location. For now, customers need to provide VoIP providers with their location information, but the FCC is planning to adopt rules later that would make location detection automatic.

Incumbent phone carriers like Verizon Communications must open their 911 networks to telecommunications rivals. Before the service rules take effect, VoIP providers must tell new and existing customers about any current 911 shortcomings.

The new FCC rules are unlikely to impose major new burdens on cable companies like Cablevision Systems Corp. and Time Warner Cable. Both cable VoIP providers are offering the same 911 services that their customers enjoyed while served by their old phone company.

“Optimum Voice service includes enhanced 911 access for every customer, so emergency calls are directed to live dispatchers who know exactly who is calling, where they are, et cetera,” Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella said.

Analysts expect millions of consumers to switch to VoIP in the years ahead. Vonage is the largest VoIP provider, with about 650,000 subscribers. Cablevision has 400,000 VoIP subscribers, and it is adding about 1,000 per day. Comcast Corp. has just started rolling out VoIP, and it will offer full 911 capabilities, a spokeswoman said.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow applauded the FCC’s decision to enact 911 rules early in the VoIP-migration process.

“Every customer expects 911 to be part of their basic voice service, and the cable industry has and will continue to provide this essential service to our VoIP customers,” McSlarrow said in a prepared statement.

The new rules apply to VoIP companies that allow consumers to send and receive calls over the traditional telephone network. But the agency exempted computer-to-computer voice services that don’t escape the Internet.

“You have to be able to both receive and terminate calls on the [public switched telephone network]. So [Microsoft Corp.’s] ‘Xbox’ would not be covered, nor would a voice service that doesn’t terminate on the [public network], like voice IM [instant-messaging] services,” said Thomas Navin, acting chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau.

Last fall, the FCC declared that VoIP was an interstate service -- an act of pre-emption that barred states from imposing 911 obligations and other traditional phone-service obligations.

At the time, some warned that the agency had created a regulatory vacuum that had the potential for danger.

“Pre-emption without policy is power without responsibility,” FCC commissioner Michael Copps said. “The sad fact is that we have spent so much time splitting hairs about what is a telecommunications service and what is an information service that we have endangered public safety. At some point, the semantic debates must end and reality must assert itself.”

September