Martin Skips VoIP in First FCC Meeting

by Roy Mark

The new FCC chairman plans to push mandatory 911 VoIP services at next month's meeting.

It was a slow day for the Internet at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the first post-Michael Powell FCC public meeting, not a single IP-related issue was on new Chairman Kevin Martin's agenda.

That, however, is very likely to change on May 19 when the FCC next meets.

In testimony before Congress earlier this week, Martin told lawmakers he would draft proposed rules to require Voice over Internet Protocol companies to provide emergency 911 calling with their services.

Although Martin's congressional appearance was to present to the FCC's $309 million budget, a House Appropriations subcommittee was far more interested in VoIP emergency calling capabilities.

Stirred by a March report that a Houston family was unable to complete a Vonage 911 call during a home intrusion, some lawmakers are clamoring to make emergency calling services mandatory for VoIP providers.

Texas sued Vonage over the incident, not for a lack of 911 services (it does through a Web site registration process) but for not properly disclosing the process in its advertising.

Chicago Republican Mark Kirk even suggested to Martin that the FCC do something to "warn customers not to buy Vonage."

Martin quickly showed his political savvy.

"I immediately asked our staff to develop a plan to address this issue," he told the lawmakers. Martin later told reporters he hoped the issue would be on the FCC's May agenda.

If it is on the May agenda, it will mark one of the few landmarks in the FCC's so far plodding review of IP-related issues that began almost a year-and-a-half ago. Launched with much fanfare in December of 2003, Powell predicted the process could be completed within a year.

At the time, all of the FCC commissioners repeatedly said VoIP should be treated with a light regulatory approach.

So far, the FCC has ruled VoIP services are interstate in nature and not subject to state rules and regulations. That has not stopped some states from attempting to regulate VoIP services under their mandate to protect their citizens.

In its only other major VoIP ruling, the FCC said VoIP providers must make their systems available for wiretapping purposes. It also fined a North Carolina telecom for blocking VoIP calls.

In addition to 911 issues, the FCC has yet to determine if VoIP customers are under any obligation to pay into the Universal Service Fund or what the rates will be for VoIP providers interconnecting with the publicly switched telephone network.

Adding to the regulatory uncertainty regarding VoIP is Congress' supposed rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

This article was originally published on Friday Apr 29th 2005