FCC Ruling Well-Intentioned–But it Won’t Work

Published May 24, 2005

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.

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

The FCC obviously felt pressured to “do something” about the difficulties VoIP 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.

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 ([email protected]) is senior fellow – IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago.