Editor's Corner

VoIP 911: Where is the Leadership?

The FCC this week gave VoIP service providers four months to deploy 911 or face a possible ban from the US market. The decision marks a radical change in course for the FCC. There are several issues with this ruling that need to be addressed if the FCC hopes to ensure that VoIP service companies get access to 911 and at the same time ensure a telecom market that is conducive to competition.

While I realize the need for 911 access on VoIP calls, I am not convinced this decision as it stands is the best way to achieve this. Sure, some incumbent telecoms have already given Internet phone companies access to their systems. The problem is that the FCC's ruling this week does not mandate that incumbents give VoIP service providers access to their systems. It implies that this is the thing incumbents should do, but it offers no guidance either for the big telecoms or the VoIP companies. In effect, this leaves the VoIP service providers at the mercy of the incumbents. This is hardly the position you want to put small innovative companies in when you are trying to encourage competition.

The next big issue is funding. The E911 system was built in large part through federal and state subsidies and fees. VoIP service providers, however, are expected to pay incumbents for access to these systems. Is the FCC going to help them do this? Compliance with this ruling as it currently stands could drive a number of VoIP startups out of business.

How does the FCC plan to enforce this ruling? And what VoIP services are covered? While this decision seems applicable to VoIP services that directly copy usability of the PSTN, like Vonage, how will it cover peer-to-peer services like Skype? Will the FCC demand the same level of compliance from Skype as it does from Vonage or cable-based VoIP services?

The final factor that the FCC needs to address: regulatory inconsistency. Wireless E911 is still not a reality, after years of missed deadlines. The fact that the wireless industry is not in compliance -- and faces no threats -- and that VoIP companies face regulatory punishment for the same position is not fair.

If the commission does not step up and provide some guidance on its ruling, I fear this decision could turn into an unfunded mandate that hurts the fast-emerging VoIP market and stunts competition in both the landline and wireless industries. - Stephen