U.S. public safety answering points, or PSAPs, should start receiving 911 calls from voice-over-IP customers within six months, thanks to an order passed unanimously by the FCC during its May 19 meeting.

The commission's 4-0 vote requires VoIP companies that connect calls to the public network to provide emergency calling service through the existing E911 system while providing location and call-back information. Currently, many VoIP providers — including Vonage, easily the largest independent VoIP company — offer 911 only as an option, and calls are sent to PSAPs' administrative lines without location information instead of being routed to lines answered by trained emergency call takers.

The order represented a fundamental shift by the FCC from its previous “hands-off” policy regarding VoIP offerings. In November 2004, the FCC asserted its jurisdiction over IP-based communications, effectively blocking state efforts to regulate VoIP providers.

Commissioner Michael Copps characterized the November decision as “pre-emption without policy,” as the then Michael Powell-led commission seemed willing to let VoIP providers conduct business without regulation. Copps said the legal arguments about whether VoIP should be treated as a regulated telecom service or an unregulated information service missed the point.

“The fact is, we've spent so much time splitting hairs that we've endangered the public's safety,” Copps said.

The order also marked the first major action taken by the commission under the leadership of Republican Kevin Martin, who replaced Powell as FCC chairman in March.

“Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that they will be connected to an emergency operator, regardless of the technology they use,” Martin said.

Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein echoed this sentiment.

“When someone calls 911, clearly they think they are connecting to emergency personnel,” Adelstein said. “We're going to make sure that happens, as quickly as possible.”

Officially, the ruling calls for VoIP providers to comply with the 911 guidelines within 120 days after the order is published in the Federal Register. An FCC official told reporters that Federal Register publication is a “priority” for the commission and is expected to occur within 45 days.

Although the order was drafted and adopted much more quickly than most proceedings (see timeline), the accelerated pace was not enough to suit Cheryl Wallers of Deltona, Fla., who told the commission her 3-month-old daughter died on March 24 because she was unable to dial 911 from her Vonage phone. Waller said she had set up 911 as Vonage had instructed, only to learn after her daughter's death that the Vonage advertised “911” service directed calls to a sheriff's line answered only during normal business hours.

“While 120 days is a reasonable number of days to compel compliance, 120 days is 120 days too many to continue to allow these companies to advertise a life-dependent service that they admittedly do not provide,” Waller said. “One hundred and twenty days is seven days longer than my daughter lived. She died at 113 days [old] because I couldn't reach 911.”

Waller said she believes Vonage “purposely deceived” her with advertisements indicating that its 911 calls would be routed to emergency call takers at the appropriate PSAP. Such claims have been the foundation of consumer-protection lawsuits filed against Vonage in the states of Texas and Connecticut.

Before the order becomes effective, VoIP providers must explain to existing and potential customers any differences between their 911 offering and the emergency-calling service provided by incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs). Exactly what type of disclosure VoIP providers would be required to execute was not detailed.

“I think it's bracketed between what Vonage does today and the cigarette packaging that says, ‘These will kill you,’” said Jim Cavanagh, global telecom network and security consultant for The Consultant Registry.

Cavanagh said the commission's action was generally expected but said he was alarmed that VoIP providers were not required to pay the fees that pay for the 911 system. However, Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said her company is willing to pay fees wherever it is given access to the selective routers that direct emergency calls to the appropriate PSAP — infrastructure typically owned by an ILEC.

Although the FCC order requires VoIP companies to provide 911 through the traditional emergency-calling network, the item does not require ILECs to let VoIP companies access the system directly. However, the FCC reiterated an existing rule that requires ILECs to provide 911 access to CLECs.

Most observers believe independent VoIP providers will be able to access 911 through the CLEC that terminates their calls on the public network. However, Schulz said Vonage has pursued a different option, negotiating 911 access deals with Qwest Communications and Verizon Communications. Similar agreements are expected with SBC Communications and BellSouth in the near future, she said.

Schulz said meeting the FCC's deadline will be challenging to Vonage, which expects to spends “tens of millions” of dollars on new equipment and about $1 million annually in additional operating costs to meet the 911 mandate.

Despite these extra expenses, Schulz said Vonage will not increase prices for its consumer packages.

“Not for us,” she said. “We're big enough to afford the hefty fees and stuff.”

VoIP companies knew they would need to offer 911 to compete against traditional phone companies, so the FCC ruling should not be a shock to their plans, said Andy Regitsky, president of Regitsky & Associates.

“I believe most of these [VoIP] folks felt like they were going to have to do it, although maybe not this quickly,” Regitsky said. “These are costs we anticipated for the companies.”

But other industry prognosticators were not as optimistic about the future of independent VoIP providers in the wake of the FCC's 911 ruling. Leading VoIP advocate Jeff Pulver wrote on his Web site blog that “such a ruling could have the one-sided effect of removing the unaffiliated voice-over-broadband service providers from the marketplace and so will begin the era of the ‘death of the local VoBB service provider.’”

Regitsky said he does not believe the 911 decision alone will have a severe negative impact on independent VoIP providers but expressed concern that the ruling could set a precedent for VoIP companies to be subject to other fees and taxes paid by traditional phone companies, such as universal-service charges. If such a scenario occurs, VoIP providers could lose their pricing advantage in the marketplace, he said.

Many industry observers believe the 911 tide began to turn against VoIP providers in February. Shortly after Houston teen Joyce John was unable to dial 911 from her family's Vonage phone, the National Emergency Numbering Association (NENA) stopped supporting VoIP providers' practice of delivering 911 calls to PSAPs' administrative lines, characterizing the practice as “unacceptable.”

NENA President Bill McMurray applauded the FCC's VoIP 911 action.

“It's a good day because voice-over the-Internet providers have embraced the idea that this is something that has to get done,” McMurray said. “If it looks like a duck, it's going to have to act like a duck.”

FCC'S PATH TO A VOIP 911 RULING

FEB. 2: Houston teen Joyce John is unable to call 911 from her family's home after her parents suffer gunshot wounds from an intruder.

FEB. 17: NENA declares routing of VoIP 911 to PSAPs' administrative lines to be “unacceptable.”

MARCH 22: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott files a lawsuit against Vonage for deceptive trade practices in its ads regarding its 911 service.

MARCH 24: 3-month-old Julia Waller of Deltona, Fla., dies after her mother was unable to call 911 from a Vonage phone.

APRIL 14: Vonage tells the FCC that Qwest Communications has agreed to let the VoIP provider access its 911 infrastructure.

APRIL 26: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tells Congress he plans to address VoIP 911 issue in May.

MAY 19: FCC requires VoIP companies to provide emergency calling through the 911 infrastructure.

Sources: FCC, NENA