Early Adopters, Late Acknowledgers

VoIP providers faced with cutting off service to customers who refuse to respond to E911 warnings.

By Roy Mark | Posted Aug 19, 2005
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Early adopters, it appears, are late acknowledgers. If they don't change their ways, they may also be without any E911 services if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has its way.

Citing public safety concerns, the FCC ruled in May that all Internet telephony companies that use the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to either begin or terminate Voice over IP calls must provide E911 services for subscribers by the end of the year.

In addition, the FCC dictated that all providers must inform their subscribers of E911 VoIP limitations such as its inability to locate calls other than the registered address of the user. The nomadic aspect of VoIP allows users to make calls from any location with a broadband connection.

To further hammer the point, the FCC also decreed that each provider must obtain an affirmative acknowledgement from each subscriber that they understand the limitations.

That has proven harder than most thought.

"There's quite a few [subscribers] out there who have done nothing yet," Jason Talley, CEO of VoIP wholesaler Nuvio, said.

That could prove to be expensive for VoIP providers since the new FCC rules require the providers to cut off service by Sept. 1 for subscribers who have not affirmatively acknowledged the warnings sent to them.

In report filings last week with the FCC, various VoIP providers reported varying degrees of success in getting affirmative acknowledgements from their subscribers.

Vonage, the nation's largest independent VoIP provider with approximately 750,000 subscribers, said 90 percent of its customers had affirmed the E911 warnings sent to them. That still leaves 75,000 paying customers in danger of using their telephone service.

"Although Vonage believes that it can achieve even higher rates of responsiveness [by Aug. 29], the company anticipates that despite its best efforts, Vonage will not be able to obtain affirmative acknowledgement from a minority of its subscribers," Vonage stated in the FCC report.

Time Warner Cable, the number two provider of VoIP with 614,000 subscribers, doesn't think the FCC rules apply to its VoIP product run over the cable giant's hybrid fiber-coaxial lines since the service can't be used in a nomadic way.

Nevertheless, "out of an abundance of caution," it is also informing customers of certain VoIP E911 limitations.

"Time Warner Cable has sent to all subscribers for whom it has a valid e-mail address on file an electronic version of the E911 notifications, which directs subscribers to a toll-free telephone number or Website to submit their acknowledgement," Time Warner told the FCC. It did not submit any estimates of acknowledgement rates.

Smaller providers such as Virginia-based SunRocket with 35,000 subscribers also report an approximate 90 percent acknowledgement rate.

"It's increasing steadily every week and we're moving closer and closer to 100 percent as we continue to alert customers about the consequences," Brian Lustig, a spokesman for SunRocket, said.

All of which begs the question: Who would pay for a service and then lose that telephone connection and E911 help by refusing to acknowledge the company's warnings?

"Folks who use VoIP like the anonymity of the technology," said Stephen Meer, chief technology officer and co-founder of VoIP E911 provisioner Intrado. "They have early adopter attitude. The next group will be different. We're right on the tipping point of that happening."

SunRocket's Lustig said some customers don't yet realize the warnings are anything more than an informational outreach by the company.

"They don't realize they have to take action. Of course, there'll always be customers who wait until the last minute," Lustig said. "When they're up against it, they'll acknowledge."

Nuvio's Talley said there any number of reasons for the lagging acknowledgements.

"Some simply disregard the e-mail warning. Maybe their spam filter got it, people are out of town. Just lots and lots of reasons," he said.

Intrado's Meer agreed with Talley.

"People get deluged a thousand times a day with lots of [e-mail] crap every day," he said. "Stuff gets lost."

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking to the day when the VoIP providers have to cut off paying customers.

"As the rule stands right now, that's what would happen," SunRocket's Lustig said. "As more information comes in, we hope some accommodation can be made."

If not, the FCC's self proclaimed "light regulatory touch" on VoIP may prove heavy handed indeed.

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