State to Target Vonage 911 Services

by Ted Stevenson

Michigan becomes the latest in a handful of states to target Vonage with deceptive advertising claims over 911 services.

Michigan is the latest state to jump on the "let's sue Vonage" bandwagon. Following the lead set by Texas last month, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said Friday he might sue the broadband phone provider for deceptive advertising practices.

Both Texas and Michigan are alleging that Vonage does not adequately explain in its television ads that 911 emergency service is not automatic. Vonage users must go to the company site and register for the service.

"Vonage needs to make sure its customers understand that normal 911 access may not be available to them," Cox said in a statement. "Emergency calls made through Vonage's service are often routed through call centers that may not be answered outside of regular business hours."

Existing 911 service is tied to a physical location, allowing the police or fire department to see the actual phone number and address when a distress call is made. But, because Vonage lets its subscribers choose their own area codes (a user in New York can have a California area code), it's not possible to directly link up with a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).

In a Notice of Intended Action (NIA) sent to Vonage Wednesday, Cox told the company it has failed to make it clear that customers do not have access to traditional 911 service.

"I dont know about most people, but I dont have the ability to time my emergencies," Cox said. "Vonage has 10 days to respond to the NIA, or my office will file a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties."

The question of 911 services for VoIP exploded in the news in March, when a Houston couple was robbed and shot in their home while their daughter frantically used the upstairs Vonage line to call 911.

Several weeks later, Texas sued the Edison, N.J.-based Vonage for deceptive advertising. New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told Congress last week he was drafting regulations that might make 911 services mandatory for VoIP providers.

In addition to Cox' NIA, the Michigan Public Utilities Commission (PUC) indicated last week it wants regulatory control over Internet phone services. The Michigan regulators want the Legislature to amend the state's telecommunications law to include Voice over IP services.

The call for VoIP regulation in Michigan comes months after the FCC ruled Internet telephony is interstate in nature and not subject to state regulations and taxes.

The courts have already rejected similar regulatory claims by Minnesota, New York and California. In August 2003, the Minnesota PUC ruled that Vonage's DigitalVoice offering was a traditional telephone service for which Vonage was required to obtain a certificate of authority and meet other rules and regulations governing telephone service in the state. Vonage won on appeal.

This article was originally published on Tuesday May 3rd 2005