WASHINGTON — Federal regulators on Friday extended a disconnection deadline that could have left tens of thousands of people without their Internet phone service next week.
The Federal Communications Commission said it would delay a Monday deadline for providers of Internet-based phone calls to get acknowledgments from their customers that they understand the problems they may encounter when dialing 911 in an emergency.
Providers of the phone service, known as Voice over Internet Protocol or “VoIP,” had been told by the FCC that they should disconnect service by Tuesday to people who had not responded.
But in Friday’s notice, the agency said the deadline would be extended to Sept. 28 for the providers to get their acknowledgments. If by that time a provider still has not received confirmation from a customer, then the company should disconnect a customer’s phone service, according to the FCC order.
The agency gave companies the option of turning off regular Internet phone service to a client, but still allowing emergency calls to 911 to be made. As part of this so-called “soft” disconnect, a provider could also allow customers to place non-911 calls that would automatically be sent to the company’s customer service center.
The agency’s decision to extend the cutoff deadline follows a letter from a coalition of VoIP providers, including AT&T and MCI, who complained that customers would be left stranded in an emergency come Tuesday. More than 30,000 people could have been left with no service at all.
“A mother may try to call a poison control center; a distressed teenager may try to call a suicide prevention line; a father may need to notify a child about the health of a grandparent,” the letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.
The FCC issued its initial order in May after tearful testimony from a Florida mother who told the commissioners about how she was unable to summon help to save her dying infant daughter.
The commission ordered the companies to provide full emergency 911 capabilities by Nov. 28. The acknowledgments were a first step in that process.
Vonage Holdings Corp., the biggest VoIP carrier with more than 800,000 subscribers, said this week that 96 percent of its customer base has responded to the company’s notices about 911 risks. That means as many as 31,000 accounts could be shut off come Tuesday.
Other leading carriers declined to quantify the response rate beyond the updates they were required to file with the FCC two weeks ago. AT&T Corp. said customer acknowledgments are now “significantly higher” than the 77 percent figure it reported to the FCC on Aug. 10.
Unlike traditional telephones, where phone numbers are associated with a specific location, VoIP users can place a call from virtually anywhere they have access to a high-speed Internet connection. But that can also make it difficult to connect VoIP accounts to the computer systems that automatically route 911 calls to the nearest emergency dispatcher and transmit the caller’s location and phone number to the operator who answers the call.
Power outages can also be a problem, leaving VoIP users unable to dial 911 because the high-speed Internet modems, phone adapters and personal computers needed for VoIP rely on electrical outlets.
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