Internet telephone providers love to flaunt subscriber mobility as a selling point. Dialing from any broadband connection is a key benefit their service has over traditional telephony, they say.
But their ace in the hole appears to now be an endangered feature. And its thanks to a new set of federal regulations.
VOIP (voice over IP) offers an inexpensive way of making phone calls from a personal computer, by allowing an Internet connection to double as an inexpensive local and long distance phone line.
Problems, both technological and business-related, mean that some VOIP customers dialing 911 never reach an emergency operator, or if they do, they might not get a local operator.
The FCC is cracking down on the once-unregulated industry because VOIP usage is expected to surge fivefold in the next few years, as more people are drawn to the low service prices. The agency now demands that VOIP providers make 911 calls a standard feature with every calling plan, and that every 911 call be accompanied the callers number and location. But it has so far backed off on setting a hard and fast date for compliance.
Some VOIP cognoscenti say that the new FCC rules make it impossible to offer whats known as "nomadic VOIP." They argue that under the rules, VOIP providers cant sign up new subscribers in areas where the FCC-required enhanced 911 service isnt available. But heres the rub: There are still large swaths of the nation where that option is not available—not to any kind of phone customer or operator.
"If the service can be taken anywhere, including a place without enhanced 911 service, then the service can be taken nowhere," VOIP cognoscenti Jeff Pulver wrote recently on his blog. "It must essentially be locked down to a fixed location."
An FCC representative wasnt immediately available for comment.
While Pulver and others have long warned that this would happen, the situation further crystallized this week as VOIP providers nationwide updated the FCC on their progress in meeting the new FCC mandate.
In those reports, some providers say they are rethinking mobility as a service, while others say the mobility issue played a large role in their asking for another delay in complying with the rules.
There is also a crackdown on mobility by VOIP operators whose subscribers are, technically, not supposed to take their services mobile but usually do, despite the dire warnings or service contract language.
One example is America Online, the division of Time Warner Inc. that has been selling a VOIP service known as TotalTalk. Now it plans, by January 2006, to install a network-based measure to keep people from dialing from more than one Internet connection, it recently told the FCC.
It will also have technology in place to determine when a TotalTalk subscriber disconnects their VOIP adapters for more than 30 minutes. Any longer, and their VOIP service is suspended, AOL told the FCC.
"It has been harder for some of the most innovative VOIP services that provide consumers with pioneering new features," said Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of The VON Coalition, a VOIP industry group. "In these cases, VOIP providers do not yet have access to all of the tools necessary to offer E911 everywhere.