Some VoIP providers miss FCC 911 deadline

An estimated 750,000 U.S. customers without emergency service

Despite a Nov. 28 deadline, more than 30 voice-over-IP providers have not met Federal Communications Commission requirements to offer an emergency dialing service called Enhanced 911.

An estimated 750,000 U.S. VoIP customers did not have Enhanced 911, or E911, service as of Nov. 28, according to the Voice on the Net (VON) Coalition, a VoIP trade group.

The FCC had softened a requirement it adopted in May for VoIP providers to cut off service to customers who could not receive E911. But in a Nov. 7 memo, the FCC told VoIP providers that the agency expected them to stop marketing in areas where they could not provide E911 after Nov. 28.

E911 service pinpoints the street address of a 911 call coming into an emergency dispatch center.

The FCC was still processing waiver requests from VoIP providers yesterday, but more than 30 VoIP providers have filed requests for extensions, an FCC spokesman said. In October, VoIP provider Nuvio Corp. filed a court challenge to the Nov. 28 deadline.

SunRocket Inc., a VoIP provider based in Virginia, reported that about 96% of its customers had E911 service as of Nov. 28. The company reportedly has more than 50,000 customers.

Vonage Holdings Corp., the largest U.S. provider of residential VoIP, said in a Nov. 28 waiver request that 26% of its customers had E911 service available. Vonage announced its 1 millionth customer in early September.

AT&T Inc. also told the FCC that about 35% of approximately 57,000 CallVantage VOIP customers do not have full E911 service.

About 90% of Vonage's customers have connections that support E911, but many dispatch centers, using 911 services from traditional wire-line carriers, are not ready to receive VoIP E911 calls, said Brooke Schulz, Vonage's senior vice president of corporate communications.

Vonage has undertaken "painstaking efforts" to meet the FCC's goal, with 125 employees working on E911 issues since June, the company told the FCC. But compliance has been slowed by some technical problems, including problems with number identification technology and a lack of cooperation from some incumbent telephone providers and dispatch centers, Vonage said.

Vonage shares FCC concerns that a number of VoIP customers do not have E911 service, Schulz said. "We've been working very hard and very fast," she said. "We've done everything in our power -- we've turned up every single element we can control and can purchase."

Vonage and AT&T have allowed customers to pick phone numbers not normally assigned to their local areas. This "nomadic" service allows customers to choose a phone number that would not be a long-distance call to family or friends living halfway across the country, but the nonlocal phone numbers make it difficult to implement E911's location pinpointing feature, Vonage and other VoIP providers have said.

"Where necessary 911 elements are made available and voluntary third-party cooperation is forthcoming, Vonage can and will be able to achieve the objectives of this order," Vonage said in the filing. "Where such cooperation is not forthcoming, however, Vonage requires Commission policies that incent rather than discourage ... cooperation and readiness."

SunRocket has avoided difficulties associated with nomadic VoIP service by providing customers with a local number and a second, nonlocal number if they want one, said Joyce Dorris, the company's chief marketing officer. In addition, the company has complied with the FCC's expectation for VoIP providers to stop marketing in areas where they can't provide E911, she said.

"We are selling exclusively to customers where we can provide Enhanced 911 services," Dorris said. "We think that's critical."

By the end of the year, SunRocket expects 99% of its customers to have E911, the company said. Still, it may be impossible for VOIP providers to achieve full compliance with the FCC order, Dorris said. Some customers move, some customers give the wrong street address when signing up for service, and some partners helping VoIP providers to offer E911 could go out of business, she said.

"I don't know if it ever can be 100% for anyone," Dorris added.

About 750,000 of the 2.5 million residential VoIP customers in the U.S. did not have E911 service as of Nov. 28, estimated Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the VON Coalition. A great majority of those VoIP users would be Vonage customers.

Kohlenberger noted, however, that in some parts of the U.S., E911 is not available to wire-line telephone customers, and the VON Coalition has pointed to an estimated 1.5 million mobile phone customers who do not yet have E911 service, after about a decade of work by the wireless industry.

VoIP providers have deployed E911 faster than any other phone services, Kohlenberger said. "Voice-over-IP providers have quickly stepped up to the plate in answering the call," he said. "In 120 days, there has been phenomenal success."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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