Net phone operators recently provided federal regulators with a bleak assessment of their industrys chances of meeting an important emergency calling milestone anytime soon.
The Federal Communications Commission now demands that every U.S. Net phone operator 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.
It now appears that a number of Net phone customers will have to wait until at least the latter part of next year for the location and call back number enhancements, according to a review of various 911 progress reports that operators have filed over the last few days, at the behest of the FCC.
The reports, due from all Net phone operators, will serve as the principal means by which the FCC decides whether to continue coddling providers of VOIP (voice over IP), which is software that allows an Internet connection to double as an inexpensive home phone, or to start enforcement actions.
VOIP operators are still awaiting the official assessment. An FCC spokesperson on Tuesday say the agency is still reviewing the reams of information. At stake is whether these operators will have to, as the FCC demands, stop marketing their services and accepting new customers in areas where they cant offer whats known as E911, or enhanced 911.
A rather sobering fact pointing to difficulties in the future comes from privately held Intrado Inc., which provides a nexus for Net phone operators to reach the 911 telephone infrastructure.
It estimates it can now offer Net phone operators a federally compliant VOIP 911 service in just 20 of the nations more than 200 major markets.
"The FCC has set a very aggressive time frame," said Mary Boyd, an Intrado vice president. "Its the most aggressive policy Ive ever seen in 20 years of being involved in 911."
To be sure, there are Net phone operators that arent having any problems. They are typically the market leaders, including Vonage Holdings, major cable operators and telephone companies that have their own Net phone plans.
But smaller players are having problems. One operator, Third Party Verification of Orlando, Fla., has asked for more time than the FCCs already given to meet the requirements. It says compliance is "impossible" at this time.
"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.
The FCC is cracking down on the once-unregulated industry because VOIP use is expected to surge five-fold in the next few years, as more people are drawn to the low service prices.
But theres one giant problem: As the reports show, many operators fall short of offering the kind of enhanced 911 service that the FCC now demands of them, and that American consumers take for granted when using a cell or fixed line phone.
As shown in the past, 911 services available through VOIP operators are sometimes life-threatening.
Problems of both a technological and business nature mean that some VOIP customers dialing 911 never reach an emergency operator, and if they do, the emergency works is usually located so far away they couldnt be of any help.
The time lost in reaching the right people has, in some instance, proven almost deadly.
VOIP insiders say operators share some of the blame for not meeting the FCCs mandate.
But in the same breath they say the FCC set an almost impossible to meet timeline for having such a complex service in place, especially considering that some of the technology is still in development.