Statement on FCC Ruling on VoIP providers and E911

May 24, 2005
Steven Titch

(May 24, 2005 -- Chicago, IL) The Federal Communications Commission ruled on May 19 that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony service providers must make E911 service accessible to their customers within 120 days.

The following statement in response to that ruling can be attributed to Steven Titch, senior fellow - IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute, a 21-year-old nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. Titch can be contacted for further information by telephone at 281/571-4322 (office) or 312/925-0464 (cell), or by email at titch@heartland.org.


The Federal Communications Commission obviously felt pressured to "do something" about the difficulties that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony service users have connecting to 911 systems. Court cases are pending in Texas and Connecticut stemming from VoIP's inability to connect to 911, so this is no small issue for consumers.

Unfortunately, since the FCC calls for VoIP providers to implement technology that does not exist, it's difficult to see what good the ruling will do.

The ruling requires VoIP providers to supply emergency services with the specific location of customers who make a 911 call. Because of the way VoIP works, that customer could be anywhere in the country (or world, for that matter). The VoIP provider cannot know where the customer is calling from unless the customer chooses to provide that information.

This raises a key compliance question: How can VoIP providers be required to supply information they do not have?

At some point, the technology will be there to automate location identification for VoIP calls, but that technology is not available today, and it won't be available in the next 120 days when this rule becomes effective.

The FCC also required that incumbent phone service providers give their VoIP competitors access to E911 networks. But the FCC failed to address a formula for tariffs, opening the door to abuse--from regulators who will demand access rates be set too low, as was the case with unbundled network elements, or from incumbents who will use the law as an attempt to gouge their VoIP competitors.

For VoIP E911 to work right, location methods will have to be worked out based on the architecture of IP, not the aging public switched network. The FCC is attempting to shoehorn regulations that fit switched phone technology into completely different formats. However well-intentioned, it just won't work.


Steven Titch (titch@heartland.org) is senior fellow - IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, its goal is to help build social movements in support of ideas that empower people. Among other publications, Heartland publishes Info Tech & Telecom News, a monthly newsletter addressing technology and telecommunications policy issues. Heartland is supported by approximately 1,500 donors and members. For more information, call Ralph Conner, Public Affairs Director, 312/377-4000, or email him at conner@heartland.org.