The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) backed off again yesterday on enforcing a deadline for Internet phone-service providers to disconnect...
NEW YORK — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) backed off again yesterday on enforcing a deadline for Internet phone-service providers to disconnect all customers who haven’t acknowledged that they understand it may be hard to reach a live emergency dispatcher when dialing 911.
The agency explained that the status reports required from every Internet phone company last week showed that by “repeatedly prompting subscribers through a variety of means, the majority of providers … have obtained acknowledgments from nearly all, if not all, of their subscribers.”
The decision came a day before a deadline that would have required Internet phone companies to cut off at least 10,000 of the estimated 2.7 million users of the service in the United States.
The FCC said providers who have received confirmations from at least 90 percent of their subscribers will no longer face the disconnection requirement, but still must continue seeking the remaining acknowledgments.
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All carriers below the 90 percent threshold will have until Oct. 31 to reach that level and avoid the disconnection requirement.
Vonage, the biggest carrier with more than 1 million subscribers, said Monday that 99 percent of its customer base has responded to the company’s notices about 911 risks. But that still meant that about 10,000 accounts stood to be shut off as early as today.
The deadline, originally set for a month ago before a last-minute reprieve by FCC, was intended as an interim safeguard while Internet phone companies rush to comply with another FCC order that they add full 911 capabilities by late November.
The FCC issued the order in May after a series of highly publicized incidents in which Internet phone users were unable to connect with a live emergency-dispatch operator when calling 911.
Critics had been increasingly vocal in questioning the wisdom of abruptly leaving users without any calling capability, particularly a type of phone service that came through in a pinch in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina.
Cut off from traditional and cellphone service by the floods after the storm, a top aide to the mayor of New Orleans managed to re-establish communications with the outside world — including President Bush — using a broadband connection and an Internet phone account.
“To have a system where you risk cutting customers off in such a short time frame? It’s unintended consequences,” Sen. John Sununu, R-New Hampshire said in a speech last week at VON, a conference that revolves around Internet phone technology, which is also known as VoIP, or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol.
“Cutting someone off from their voice service carries enormous risks,” Sununu said.
Unlike the traditional telephone network, where phone numbers are associated with a specific location, VoIP users can place a call from virtually anywhere they have access to a high-speed Internet connection.
That “roaming” flexibility, while generally viewed as a benefit, can make it more complex to connect VoIP accounts to the computer systems that automatically route 911 calls to the nearest emergency dispatcher and instantly transmit the caller’s location and phone number to the operator who answers the call.
Most VoIP providers have been able to offer only a watered-down version of 911 service that often directs emergency calls to a general administrative phone number at a local public-safety office. In many cases, those lines are not staffed by emergency operators, and some may even play only a recording or go unanswered, particularly during nonpeak hours.
Cable-based VoIP services have avoided the roaming issue by tying each phone number to a specific location and emergency-dispatch center.