The FCC Inches Toward Ensuring VoIP Reliability

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken a baby step towards ensuring the reliability of VoIP service. As I wrote some months ago, the FCC had been considering regulations requiring VoIP providers to supply it with information on service outages, a requirement already in place for those providing voice services via the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) or via the cellular network.

In theory the FCC shouldn’t have regulatory authority over what could be seen as the purely commercial endeavor of providing VoIP service, the way some look at it. But the FCC is basing its right to rule on VoIP as part of the task of ensuring the integrity of the nation’s 911 emergency phone services. And since something like one third of residential telephone service is now provided by VoIP, it only stands to reason that one third of the nation’s emergency ‘landline’ phone calls from homes are going over VoIP. Thus, the FCC gets authority to regulate the service in order to protect the ‘common good.’

The FCC doesn’t mention business VoIP services in its order – it’s not that imaginative – but for business VoIP users such as those who use Phone.com’s Enterprise or Home Office plans, the action has what should be of obvious value. Firstly, because anything that improves VoIP service overall is of value to business VoIP users. Secondly, because businesses use E911 services just like residential users (and of course Phone.com does also serve residential customers).

But the FCC action is just a “baby step” in my opinion for a long list of reasons. The first is that the FCC’s actions so far have no teeth. What’s been mandated so far is simply a reporting requirement to provide data the FCC imagines it can use to craft some sort of rules in the future. The second is that the data is apparently going to be kept secret. Which means that it is not going to be a lot of help to VoIP users. As a Phone.com user myself, for both business and home, I’ve not experienced a single VoIP service outage in a year. That’s not the story I hear about some other VoIP providers – particularly those whose operation is run on little more than a server in someone’s basement.

But the biggest hole in the FCC action is that it doesn’t cover broadband service providers in terms of requiring them to report service outages. VoIP service is, after all, carried over the broadband connections to a business or home (indeed my broadband service has proven to be far from reliable, although I’ve never missed a call because of Phone.com’s ‘follow me’ ability to send calls to my cell phone every time Century Link messes up my broadband). The failure to require broadband service providers to also report outages is a fatal flaw in the FCC action, an omission that it will have to fix before VoIP users see real benefit from government oversight.

Stuart Zipper is currently a contributing editor to Communications Technology, a high tech business journalism consultant and freelancer, and the past Senior Editor of TelecomWeb news break.