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Net phone deadline extended

NEW YORK — The Federal Communications Commission backed off again Tuesday on enforcing a deadline for Internet phone service providers to disconnect all customers who haven't acknowledged that they understand it may be hard to reach a live emergency dispatcher when dialing 911.

The agency explained that the status reports required from every Internet phone company last week showed that by "repeatedly prompting subscribers through a variety of means, the majority of providers . . . have obtained acknowledgments from nearly all, if not all, of their subscribers."

The decision came a day before a deadline that would have required Internet phone companies to cut off at least 10,000 of the estimated 2.7 million users of the service in the United States.

The FCC said providers who have received confirmations from at least 90 percent of their subscribers will no longer face the disconnection requirement but still must continue seeking the remaining acknowledg- ments.

All carriers below the 90 percent threshold will have until Oct. 31 to reach that level and avoid the disconnection requirement.

Vonage Holdings Corp., the biggest carrier with more than 1 million subscribers, told The Associated Press on Monday that 99 percent of its customer base have responded to the company's notices about 911 risks. But that still meant that about 10,000 accounts stood to be shut off as early as Wednesday.

The deadline, originally set for a month ago before a last-minute reprieve by the FCC, was intended as an interim safeguard while Internet phone companies rush to comply with another FCC order that they add full 911 capabilities by late November.

The FCC issued the order in May after a series of highly publicized incidents in which Internet phone users were unable to connect with a live emergency dispatch operator when calling 911.

Critics had been increasingly vocal in questioning the wisdom of abruptly leaving users without any calling capability, particularly a type of phone service that came through in a pinch in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina.

Cut off from traditional and cellular phone service by the floods after the storm, a top aide to the mayor of New Orleans managed to re-establish communications with the outside world — including President Bush — using a broadband connection and an Internet phone account.

"To have a system where you risk cutting customers off in such a short time frame? It's unintended consequences," Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire said in a speech last week at VON, a conference that revolves around Internet phone technology, which is also known as VoIP or Voice-over- Internet-Protocol.

"Cutting someone off from their voice service carries enormous risks," Sununu said.

Unlike the traditional telephone network, where phone numbers are associated with a specific location, VoIP users can place a call from virtually anywhere they have access to via a high-speed Internet connection.

That "roaming" flexibility, while generally viewed as a benefit, can make it more complex to connect VoIP accounts to the computer systems that automatically route 911 calls to the nearest emergency dispatcher and instantly transmit the caller's location and phone number to the operator who answers the call.

Most VoIP providers have only been able to offer a watered-down version of 911 service that often directs emergency calls to a general administrative phone number at a local public safety office. In many cases, those lines are not staffed by emergency operators, and some may even play only a recording or go unanswered, particularly during non-peak hours.

Cable-based VoIP services have avoided the roaming issue by tying each phone number to a specific location and emergency dispatch center.

But VoIP providers who allow their customers to use their numbers in multiple locations face major challenges. They need to adopt a technology that will send their customers into a disparate national patchwork of 911 call-routing systems and databases. That means they must reach an interconnection agreement with each of the more than 1,000 local phone companies who maintain and operate those 911 systems.

While most Internet phone companies and industry observers haven't objected to the FCC's goal, many have criticized the agency for allowing only four months for such a young industry with limited financial resources to overcome the assorted hurdles with providing full 911.

"I'm not sure what the FCC was thinking when they made up their 120-day timeframe," Sununu said in his speech last week.