VoIP providers ask FCC to extend deadline

Bussiness Week

A coalition of Internet phone providers asked federal regulators Thursday to extend a disconnection deadline that could lead to tens of thousands of customers losing service next week.

The Federal Communications Commission has set a Monday deadline for providers of Internet-based telephone calls to get acknowledgments from their Voice over Internet Protocol customers that they understand the problems they may encounter when dialing 911 in an emergency.

Providers of the phone service, known as "VoIP," are expected to disconnect service to people who have not responded. The FCC notice gave the companies a Tuesday deadline to cut off service.

The VON Coalition, which includes AT&T, MCI, and T-Mobile USA, said the FCC order could leave customers stranded in an emergency.

"A mother may try to call a poison control center; a distressed teenager may try to call a prevention suicide line; a father may need to notify a child about the health of a grandparent," the letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.

The coalition asked that providers get an additional 90 days to obtain confirmations.

A commission spokesman declined to comment on the letter.

The FCC issued its initial order in May after a series of highly publicized incidents in which VoIP users were unable to connect with a live emergency dispatch operator when calling 911. The commission ordered the companies to provide full emergency 911 capabilities by late November. The acknowledgments were a first step in that process.

Vonage Holdings Corp., the biggest VoIP carrier with more than 800,000 subscribers, said this week that 96 percent of its customer base has responded to the company's notices about 911 risks. That means as many as 31,000 accounts could be shut off come Tuesday.

Other leading carriers declined to quantify the response rate beyond the updates they were required to file with the FCC two weeks ago. AT&T Corp. said customer acknowledgments are now "significantly higher" than the 77 percent figure it reported to the FCC on Aug. 10.

Unlike traditional telephones, where phone numbers are associated with a specific location, VoIP users can place a call from virtually anywhere they have access to a high-speed Internet connection. But that can make it difficult to connect VoIP accounts to the computer systems that automatically route 911 calls to the nearest emergency dispatcher and transmit the caller's location and phone number to the operator who answers the call.

In addition, while traditional phone lines generally keep working during a blackout, VoIP users might not be able to dial 911 during a power outage because the high-speed Internet modems, phone adapters and personal computers needed for VoIP calling rely on electrical outlets and batteries.

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