FCC Demands Accountability from VoIP Providers

New Rule Requires Notification of Service Outages

In what surely seems a case of "too little, too late" to Phone Power customers who weathered the May 2nd service disruption, the FCC has finalized rules requiring VoIP providers to report service outages.

After much dickering and dithering about the types of outages that must be reported — when service is available but technically affected vs. a total loss of service — the FCC ultimately decided that VoIP providers only have to report an outage that results in a complete loss of VoIP phone service.

I guess you can surmise, then, that a partial disruption — otherwise phrased as, "You have service, you just don't have service" — is merely a minor blip of inconvenience as far as the government is concerned. I get that reaction sometimes from my cable provider when all the channels freeze up; they clearly underestimate how life-alteringly "inconvenient" not having a cable TV signal really is (#firstworldproblem).

VoIP Phone Service and e911 Access

The main motivation behind the new FCC rule for VoIP providers isn't to helpfully pass on the information to suffering subscribers, however. (Phone Power customers were left without service and information for hours during the recent outage, save for one little-publicized Twitter account.) By requiring service interruption notices from VoIP providers, the FCC intends to monitor and/or regulate their statutory compliance with e911 services.

The FCC hopes to gain a better understanding of the country's 911 systems by recording the frequency, duration, distribution, and effect of VoIP phone outages, which it can only log if the VoIP phone service providers officially notify them. With VoIP phone service increasing among both residential and business consumers, the government wants to ensure that the nation's emergency communication systems (especially e911 services) are reliable, effective — and preferably uninterrupted.

Well, Duh

The public's access to e911 service "directly impacts public safety and the ability of our first responders to fulfill their critical mission," the FCC noted in the rule published April 27th in the Federal Register. "The cost to these providers of implementing the rules adopted herein is justified by the overwhelming public benefit of a reliable 9-1-1 system."

The FCC vs. VoIP

As of 2010, 31% of residential wireline 911 calls (so, not counting mobile, which might also have used VoIP) were made using VoIP phone service. The rising popularity of VoIP phone service is a strong motivator for the FCC to monitor e911 compliance, even as VoIP service providers fought against the FCC's new rule, suggesting a competitive market was incentive enough to provide continuous service.

That free market economy argument is cold comfort to Phone Power customers, however, who are still experiencing call quality problems with their VoIP phone service a week after the denial of service (DOS) attack that quieted the VoIP phone company.

With no effective date announced yet for the new FCC rule, Phone Power is off the hook with regard to reporting this most recent outage, which occurred a mere 5 days after the FCC rule was published. However, the service disruption just gives more credibility to the FCC's observation that, "there is cause to be concerned about the ability of interconnected VoIP subscribers to reach emergency services when they need them. In the past several years, a series of significant VoIP outages has increased our concern about the availability of 9-1-1 over VoIP service."

VoIP Security

In the end, what this new rule and the ill-timed and disastrous Phone Power outage really do is highlight the fact that VoIP phone service does require that some precautions be taken.

A VoIP phone call is merely data being transmitted over the Internet, and the same steps must be taken to ward off all the unnatural predators — the phishing, worms, viruses, Trojans, and more — found there as you would with any data network.

Also, regarding contingency plans and disaster recovery services: Make sure you have them if you're setting up your own IP PBX, and make sure your hosted PBX has adequate measures in place. Don't get me wrong, inexpensive phone service is a good thing. But sometimes, you really do get what you pay for.

Appears in: FCCvoip
Jackson Weber's picture
Jackson Weber, editor of VoipReview.org is a graduate from the University of Michigan, with a special focus in rhetoric and technical writing. Using these skill sets in conjunction with heavy research, Jackson stays ahead of the latest VoIP technology. He always finds the latest information on everything from SIP trunks to cloud-based PBX services, and breaks it down in plain English that almost anyone can understand.