Can the VOIP 911 Problem Be Solved?

Opinion: The immediate situation caused by the FCC is confusing and not a real solution. The long term is murky, but look for VOIP vendors to roll back some of the freedoms they gave to users.

Theres a lot of confusion out there over VOIP and 911 services. In the wake of Thursdays FCC order to the VOIP industry to provide E911 services within 120 days, I have to count myself among the confused.

First, I hope to clear up some confusion. There are a lot of people who think that, as a general matter, VOIP doesnt have 911 service. This isnt true. The truth is far more complicated. Some VOIP providers provide full E911 service, and others provide none.

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The actual FCC order hasnt yet been published, but we do have a press release they issued along with short statements from each of the commissioners. The press release includes descriptions of the order, including the following points:

  • It applies to companies that provide phone service that allows customers to make and receive calls on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).
  • 911 calls must be delivered to the customers local emergency operator, and this must be a standard, not optional, feature.
  • The provider must provide number and location information to the operator. This is what it defines as "E911" service. The FCC presumes that the information will need to be self-reported, so the provider must provide the customer with a means to change the location information if they change the location of the VOIP TA (terminal adapter).
  • Providers must inform their customers of all these changes by the effective date.
  • ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers), like Verizon and SBC, must provide access to their E911 networks to any carrier.
  • The deadline is 120 days from May 19, 2005.

Next page: The implications of the order.