FCC Proposing Service Outage Rules for VoIP, Broadband ISPs

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The Federal Communications Commission on May 12 proposed new rules requiring both interconnected voice over internet protocol, or VoIP, service providers and broadband internet service providers to report serious service outages.

The notice of proposed rulemaking, adopted by the FCC on a 4-0 vote, with Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell concurring in part, would essentially require VoIP and broadband providers to adhere to the same reporting rules that currently apply to traditional telephone companies.

The FCC reported in its most recent Local Competition Report that nearly 30 percent of the 89 million residential telephone subscriptions were provided by interconnected VoIP providers, with broadband networks carrying an ever-increasing volume of “911” emergency call traffic. VoIP providers have been required to offer 911 capability since 2005.

As part of the notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC would extend the 911 outage reporting requirements that have been imposed on wireless, wireline, cable, and satellite communications service providers since 2005 to both interconnected VoIP providers and broadband ISPs.

“The American communications landscape is changing,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Unfortunately, our existing outage reporting requirements extend only to services delivered over legacy communications technologies, like traditional landline phones connected by copper wire, and not to service delivered over broadband platforms, like VoIP.”

Concern About Statutory Authority.

Commissioner McDowell, while supportive of the ultimate goals of the rulemaking, questioned whether the FCC has the statutory authority to impose outage reporting requirements on broadband ISPs. “In my view, we do not have Congress's authority to act as suggested,” he said.

When asked whether he believes the FCC does have the authority, Genachowski told reporters that the Communications Act and presidential directives give the commission important responsibilities to ensure the resiliency and reliability of the nation's communications infrastructure.

“We launched a notice that identified a real issue,” Genachowski said during a press conference following the agency's May 12 agenda meeting. “We've had a network outage reporting system that has worked. It has helped our public safety communication infrastructure. However, the rules we have in effect no longer match the development in how people are actually communicating, how people are calling 911. So we all agree that we need to explore what rules and policies make sense.”

Commenting on the FCC's Communications Act authority, Genachowski added: “I have no question that the statute places on the FCC important obligations with respect to public safety.”

Also addressing reporters, Austin Schlick, FCC general counsel , cited Section 4(i) of the Communications Act, under which the FCC has the obligation to take steps necessary to ensure that the mandates of the act itself are fulfilled.

“Providing that 911 service is one of those mandates,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Copps expressed reservations about invoking the Commission’s ancillary jurisdiction and said, “Our charge to protect the American people should never have to hinge on semantics.”

By Paul Barbagallo