Watchdog Becomes Lapdog: Vonages Fatal Flaw and the FCC

Opinion: The blame does not rest solely on Vonage in its troubles with 911 services. The FCC is complicit in the company's irresponsibility.

The FCC has done the right thing by forcing Vonage and other new-age carriers to quickly remove a potentially fatal flaw in their VOIP networks.

If youve been following this, you know that when I say "fatal flaw," Im talking about the flaw being fatal to the user, rather than merely the product itself dying.

Im not sure how many times Ive ever seen a personally fatal problem in a communications product, though I suppose automobile accidents that occur while using a cellular telephone would also qualify.

In order to make a buck, the Vonage people released a product that they knew or should have known could cause injury or death.

Not specifically because of Vonage, but because when a person gets in trouble and dials 911, the Vonage system may or may not know how to route the call to the customers local public safety dispatch center.

If Vonage is not set up properly, the caller gets a recording instead of help.

Lots of good that recording will do when youve locked yourself in the bedroom after hearing strange noises downstairs.

Or when you have to run next door, praying your neighbor isnt also using Vonage, while granddad sits on the couch, watching baseball and clutching his chest.

What part of the concept "911 saves lives" do you suppose the Vonage people didnt understand?

The general public seems to understand it, and Ill bet some senior Vonage exec has actually dialed 911 at some point.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Vonage defending its manually activated 911 calling.

How could they release a product that calls itself a telephone network but doesnt properly route 911 calls?

Vonage has sold this system, touted as offering cheap telephony over an existing broadband connection, to about 1 million customers, mostly consumers.

One of the speakers at the FCC meeting was a woman whose child died after she was unable to reach 911 on a VOIP phone.

The FCC has given Vonage and the other VOIP carriers 120 days to fix the problem, something Vonage has said it might be unable to do because of the complexity of the task.

My suggested means of encouragement would be a $1 million-a-day fine, plus making sure that all Vonage execs, along with the venture capitalists that backed the company, have no access to 911 until the problem is fixed for all Vonage customers.

I suspect that would hasten the process considerably.

As a technology person, I am disgusted by Vonages lack of responsibility in introducing such a flawed system in the first place.

As new FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said during the hearing, "Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that he or she will be connected to an emergency operator."

What Martin didnt say was that the FCC is complicit in Vonages irresponsibility by not enacting the rules necessary to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place.

As industry lackeys, the FCC commissioners understandably let businesses they are supposed to regulate pretty much do what they want.

I dont think this policy has worked especially well, and this is a shining example of what happens with the watchdog becomes lapdog.

Vonage should be ashamed. The FCC commissioners should be ashamed.

And citizens should be outraged that a government sworn to protect them cant even make sure 911 calls go through properly.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers.

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