The FCC's unanimous vote on May 19 to require VoIP providers to make 911 service available to all customers automatically is especially good news to New York City, which has been wrestling with a VoIP/911 solution for months.

Gino Menchini, commissioner of New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, publicly commended the FCC for its efforts to reach out to state and local government on the issue, and hailed the ruling as necessary.

The FCC ruling states that it is incumbent on VoIP providers to find a way to provide true 911 service to all customers. From a state and local perspective, the ruling means other cities should be spared the labor endured by New York City, which offered its experiences and influence as a member of the FCC's Network Reliability and Interoperability Council.

New York City to date had received nearly 6,000 911 calls from VoIP customers. Some were emergencies and some were "test" calls from new VoIP users who were reportedly encouraged to test 911 availability. These calls go to an administrative phone line in Brooklyn and not to the 911 network. They tie up the administrative line, which doesn't really provide 911 service. VoIP/911 callers must be transferred to a trained 911 call taker, or worse, can find the line busy. Even if the call is transferred to a trained 911 call taker, the caller's location and call-back number are not displayed.

The city feared continued reliance on this type of operation would eventually court disaster, and convened a series of meetings with Vonage, Intrado, New York State's Public Service Commission and with the incumbent local exchange carrier. The city was so adamant about providing 911 service for VoIP users, it threatened to block the administrative phone line to such calls and force the VoIP provider to inform customers that 911 service was not available.

The effort in New York was not lost on the FCC, which watched New York City's progress closely before the May 19 ruling.

The ruling also avoids the possibility of some VoIP providers not offering 911 call service and thus avoiding the issue altogether. One fear was that some smaller VoIP providers would offer non-911 VoIP connections -- charging less for the service -- and that their customers might not have even known the difference.

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Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor