Optical/IP Networks

Sources: FCC Will Force VOIP E911

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week will require all VOIP providers doing business in the U.S. to provide basic E911 service to their customers, Light Reading has learned from sources close to the Commission.

Sources who met with the FCC in recent weeks say the ruling will come at the FCC’s Open Meeting on May 19th, and will require VOIP players to implement 911 service on a nationwide basis within 120 days of the order’s publication. They add that publication of the order will come a few weeks after the meeting, which would put the compliance deadline at late October or early November.

The implications of such an order will be a victory of sorts for the RBOCs, as their competition, the independent VOIP providers, will be forced to make arrangements with incumbent phone companies across the country for access to the emergency services infrastructure, and will be forced to pay the associated tariffs (see Citron: Some Bills Are 'Weirdly Weird' ).

What's more, sources agree that the FCC will claim it does not have the jurisdiction to compel the LECs to make the process easier.

“The issue is, fundamentally, if they put forth a mandate saying that you have to deliver the calls with automatic forwarding information, and they do so without forcing the LECs to open up their selective router interfaces, then that will be a real problem,” says Tim Lorello, chief marketing officer at third-party E911 service provider TeleCommunication Systems Inc. (TCS) (Nasdaq: TSYS). Annapolis-based TeleCommunication has been working directly with the FCC on the issue over the past several weeks.

The consumer VOIP business has to date enjoyed relatively low cost of entry, but that may change Thursday (see Does VOIP Business Add Up?). Smaller VOIP providers already faced with high competition and downward pricing pressure will encounter yet another serious economic challenge in enabling emergency service in all areas.

“This could quickly put a monkey wrench into some of these startups' plans,” says IP communications analyst Jon Arnold of Arnold & Associates.

In order to comply with the FCC E911 order, an independent VOIP provider would negotiate directly with the incumbent LEC for access to the selective routers, databases, and networking trunks necessary to connect with Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs). But the costs are high, and small VOIP providers may find it more economically feasible to partner with a third party like TCS, or even with a CLEC.

Others observe that the E911 service has been pushed to the top of the regulatory agenda at a surprisingly early stage in the development and commercialization of the technology.

“It is a legitimate issue; how legitimate I’m not exactly sure,” says Washington attorney Dana Frix, who represents VOIP providers on other issues. “Just to state the obvious -- it took the wireless guys 15 years to have this, so why domestic VOIP needs it in 30 days or 60 days I’m not sure.”

One explanation may be VOIP’s increased coverage in the mainstream media, both positive and negative. The press has given ample coverage to VOIP's potential, but has also gravitated to cases like the one in Texas where VOIP’s 911 shortcomings allegedly exacerbated the damage from a robbery.

Some observe that E911’s place atop the VOIP regulatory agenda may be due to the lobbying pressures exerted in Washington by the RBOCs, who may wish to slow down the growth of VOIP insurgents like Vonage Holdings Corp..

“For [RBOCs], pushing in this direction just buys them more time and just makes it a little more difficult for these new disruptive providers to making a big dent in their wireline business,” Arnold says. “They may make a small dent but this will slow down the momentum a bit.”

An SBC spokesman declined to comment on the company’s lobbying efforts in the Capitol, but said his company had been in conversations on the issue with the agency along with many others.

After many months of stalling, all of the RBOCs have now announced in press releases their intention to facilitate access for VOIP providers to the E911 infrastructure in their footprints (see RBOCs Change Tone on VOIP E911). The proximity of that reversal to the FCC’s regulatory action this week is probably no accident. [Ed. note: There are no accidents in Washington.]

But questions remain about the real costs and actual availability of the RBOCs’ E911 solutions for VOIP players, according to one VOIP provider's compliance officer.

“I spoke to SBC earlier in the week and they said ‘we don’t have a tariff in place and we don’t have any documents for you to look at, but don’t worry, give us a call and we’ll work something out,’” the officer said.

"It’s really easy to put out a press release; it’s not quite as simple to provision a service."

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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