Wednesday, May 11, 2005

EMERGENCY RESPONSE to Emergency Response Regulation:

Jeff Pulver - The Jeff Pulver Blog spent much of the past week lobbying the FCC on the state of 911 service offerings by VoIP providers. As it stands, the FCC is likely to adopt an Order at its May 19 Open Meeting that would give VoIP providers 120 days to provide nationwide basic 911 for all connected VoIP providers, E911 for non-nomadic, and the extent to which it would require E911 nomadic VoIP services is still unclear (at least to me).
The FCC Order is, no doubt, motivated by the most noble of goals -- reliable emergency response systems for all Americans. No one wants, or is pushing harder to implement these services, more than the VoIP industry itself. Most PSTN-connected VoIP providers currently provision at least basic 911 emergency services, and typically provision E911 for fixed locations. As we understand the current version of the FCC Order, however, the FCC might compel VoIP providers to offer technologically impossible or financially devastating enhanced 911 obligations within 120 days of the Order's effective date. I have some concerns that such a mandate could put more Americans in harms way by denying consumers access to useful VoIP services and, in the process, could have detrimental consequences on the emerging IP-based communications industry, at least the smaller VoIP providers who cannot feasibly provide a nationwide E911 service. It will be technologically or economically impossible for most of the smaller VoIP providers to provide a nationwide, ubiquitous E911 solution, particularly if the FCC fails to compel access to LEC controlled selective routers on nondiscriminatory rates, terms and conditions and if the FCC does not explicitly prohibit port blocking. It is unclear to me to what extent providers could satisfy the FCC's mandated E911 obligation short of a ubiquitous, nationwide E911 solution.
The other piece of the puzzle that is still unclear to me is what VoIP services are to be covered by the likely FCC Order. Depending on how broad the FCC definition of included services is, the requirements might unintentionally include some IP-based communications services where no one could have had any real expectation that the product would have a traditional E911 capability. I am fairly confident that the Order is meant to capture two-way voice transmissions designed primarily to function like traditional PSTN service and is not intended to capture peer-to-peer services like Free World Dialup and Skype. But the definition of included services will have to be narrowly tailored so as not be draw us into the net of covered services. For instance, if the FCC's definition applies to two-way voice services using the North American Numbering Plan, would this include a PDA with both Skype-in and Skype-out utilizing a North American NPA-NXX? I presume this is not the FCC's intention, but definitions are a tricky game, particularly as technology evolves and Internet services are more and more capable of replicating traditional telecommunications experiences. Should it be against the law for a PDA user at a bar in America to use Skype-out if it does not have direct routing to a E911 PSAP? I certainly hope not. I think it would be an obvious boon to emergency response if that PDA could allow the user any additional ability (even if it is not in compliance with FCC-mandated 911 obligations) to communicate with the outside world when the user witnesses an emergency situation at a bar.
VoIP, by its very nature, should empower a user to take her service anywhere without having to check with the VoIP provider to verify that the particular remote location has an arrangement with the VoIP provider. It is one thing to compel a primary fixed-fixed line provider, be it VoIP or traditional telephony, to provide E911 capabilities, but what logic would be served from turning off the nomadic capability of IP technology simply because the user cannot access a local emergency response system when she attaches her computer with a softphone program or other IP phone to a broadband connection at a hotel or other remote location? Isn't it possible that a person at a Starbucks who witnesses an armed robbery and shooting might be able to save a life by being able to either dial the police or dial basic 911 using her nomadic VoIP solution rather than preventing any calls because there isn't an E911 capability?
The issue is obviously of more concern to "connected" VoIP services than to peer-to-peer IP-based communications services such as Skype, Free World Dialup, AIM, yahoo or MSN. But the consequences could extend to peer-to-peer services, particularly where the peer-to-peer provider allows for even limited PSTN connectivity. If a VoIP provider is offering outbound service within the US (like this yellow page click-to-call directory on (, will have to ensure (at least through its underlying LEC or through a service bureau) that its customers can reach an emergency responder? E911 requires a call-back number but one-way services are only one-way. And what about the future of inbound-only services? There really should not be any expectation that the inbound-only line could make an outbound PSTN call (either to an emergency responder or anyone else).
These are my initial thoughts. I welcome yours and hope that you will engage in this public debate so that we develop the best possible emergency response capabilities and promote the best policy for advancing IP-based communications.
Posted by jeff at 10:07 PM | Comments (0)


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