Wednesday, May 18, 2005

FCC Issues VoIP E911 Order

By a vote of 4-to-0, the FCC adopted rules that require all VoIP providers that permit their customers to receive and place calls over the public-switched telephone network to provide their customers with 911 access. At its open meeeting, the FCC heard from witnesses who described tragedies that followed from their inability to reach emergency services over a residential VoIP line. One woman from Florida told how she was unable to connect with 911 using Vonage when her 3-month old daughter stopped breathing. The mother ran to a neighbor's house to place the emergency call, but unfortunately the child died.

Key provisions of the VoIP E911 order include:

  • Interconnected VoIP providers must deliver all 911 calls to the customer's local emergency operator. This must be a standard, rather than optional, feature of the service.

  • Interconnected VoIP providers must provide emergency operators with the call back number and location information of their customers (i.e., E911) where the emergency operator is capable of receiving it. Although the customer must provide the location information, the VoIP provider must provide the customer a means of updating this information, whether he or she is at home or away from home.

  • By the effective date, interconnected VoIP providers must inform their customers, both new and existing, of the E911 capabilities and limitations of their service.

  • The incumbent LECs are required to continue to provide access to their E911 networks to any requesting telecommunications carrier. They must continue to provide access to trunks, selective routers, and E911 databases to competing carriers. The Commission will closely monitor this obligation.

VoIP providers were given 120 days to comply, but the order does not dictate the technical means by which providers must come into compliance. VoIP providers may interconnect directly with the incumbent LECs' 911 network or purchase access to this network from competitive carriers and other third-party providers.

"Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that he or she will be connected to an emergency operator; this expectation exists whether that person is dialing 911 from a traditional wireline phone, a wireless phone, or a VoIP phone. Today, we take this action to ensure this expectation is met as soon as possible," stated FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote "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--when customers sign up for a telephone they expect it to deliver like a telephone. When an intruder is in the house and the homeowner goes to the phone to call the police, that's a call that just has to go through."
  • in April 2005, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a decision requiring VoIP service providers to provide the same level of 9-1-1 emergency service that is provided by the incumbent telephone companies within 90 days. Specifically, the Commission requires VoIP service providers providing either nomadic VoIP service or foreign exchange VoIP service to implement, within 90 days of the date of this decision, an interim solution which provides a level of service comparable to Basic 9-1-1 service. In addition to the above service requirements, the Commission also requires all VoIP service providers to provide customers with notification, both before service commencement and during service provision, regarding any limitations associated with their emergency 9-1-1 service. The VoIP service providers must also secure the customer's express acknowledgement that they are aware of these limitations, prior to providing this type of service.

  • In March 2005, the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against Vonage, the country's largest Internet-based telephone service provider, for failing to make clear to consumers that the company's current service does not include access to traditional emergency 9-1-1 service. The story was widely reported in newspapers across the country. The state of Texas said the dangers posed by Vonage's failure "to clearly disclose the lack of traditional 9-1-1 access" have resulted in tragedy.

See also