Service cutoff extended for unresponsive U.S. VoIP users

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Kevin Martin: chairman of the FCC

A Tuesday service cutoff deadline in the United States for tens of thousands of VoIP customers who failed to reply to a service limitation notification from their provider was extended by 30 days, to September 28. In an FCC mandate, VoIP providers such as Time Warner Cable, Vonage and Verizon, were to send notice to customers asking them acknowledge the possible limitations of E911 access and to keep a record of their replies.

Specifically, the FCC mandated that VoIP providers must advise subscribers of the circumstances under which E911 service may not be available, and distribute stickers or other appropriate labels with a warning that E911 service may be limited or not available, and instruct the subscriber to place them on or near the equipment used in conjunction with the service. Lastly, the provider is to obtain and keep a record of affirmative acknowledgement by every subscriber, both new and existing.

A significant number of VoIP customers did not reply to the warning letter. This led the Voice on the Net Coalition, with House Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and other lawmakers to write FCC Chairman Kevin Martin with their concerns. For some customers, it was feared that if the VoIP service was ended, they would have no phone service.

The E911 system allows emergency operators to link a caller's physical location with the phone used to dial for help. Conventional phones have had that capability for years, but not all VoIP providers have the technology for such a system in place. Cell phone companies are also struggling to upgrade their products for E911 capability.

VoIP use reported by the TeleGeography Research Group showed strong customer growth during the second quarter of this year. Subscribers increased nearly 40 percent over the first quarter, from roughly 1.9 million to 2.7 million.

Users of VoIP seem far from scared off by concerns over E911 connectivity despite findings that indicate the majority are interested in it as a primary phone line replacement. "To get [VoIP telephony], you’ve got to have a broadband connection, that means you’re a reasonably affluent consumer, you’ve got a cell phone, you’ve got some sort of backup plan in place," said Stephan Beckert, an analyst for TeleGeography. "There was a group that said they would not get it because of the problems with E911. But there was a surprisingly large core group that really didn’t worry about it."