CRTC demands VoIP providers offer 911 services

Canadian voice-over-IP providers say they are already prepared to meet a regulatory requirement announced Monday to offer emergency 911 services comparable to incumbent carriers.

In its decision, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications

Commission (CRTC) said VoIP service providers must notify customers about any limitations to their emergency services, as well as make sure their subscribers acknowledge they are aware of limitations. The Commission also requires that all VoIP providers provide ongoing customer notification during service provisioning, by issuing warning stickers to be placed on telephone sets, through any subsequent advertising and in billing inserts.

The Commission distinguished between three types of VoIP service that will be required to offer emergency services. These include fixed VoIP service where users can only place a telephone call from the location where their service is being provided, nomadic VoIP where calls can be made from any location that offers Internet access, and foreign exchange VoIP service, which allows users in one exchange to receive telephone calls dialed as local calls in another exchange (for example, a customer located in Ottawa with a Halifax local telephone number).

Fixed providers must offer either enhanced or basic 911 services, while nomadic or foreign exchange must simply provide an interim solution with basic 911 service.

Enhanced 911 service automatically sends customer location information to an emergency centre where an operator dispatches a response service. Basic 911 service connects the caller to a central call centre which then connects the call to the correct emergency response centre, from which point the caller must identify his or her location in order for an emergency response service to be dispatched.

In an e-mail, VoIP expert Jeff Pulver said the decision was another example of the CRTC being reactive rather than proactive.

“The entire voice over broadband industry is barely three years old, yet we are being held to a standard set by the legacy PSTN network. The wireless industry was at least 15 years old before such requirments were thrust upon it,” he said.  “Left on its own, the CRTC is creating roadblocks that will discourage continued voice over broadband deployments in Canada and encourage would-be innovators to do business in other countries.”

Industry experts have warned that some VoIP providers may not be able to properly fill in the Automatic Location Identification (ALI) and Autonomic Number Identification (ANI) databases, but most firms have worked to meet the CRTC’s criteria, said Iain Grant, an analyst with the Montreal-based SeaBoard Group.

“I think everyone’s pretty much there,” he said. “The question is, why did it take so long for the CRTC to come up with this, and why is it such a big deal?”

Joe Parent, vice-president of business and marketing with Vonage Canada, said his firm applauded the decision and said he was confident the regulations would be met.

“Over next 90 days, we’ll be ensuring it does meet the letter of the law. We’re fairly confident it meets the spirit of the law,” he said. “There might be some clarification around customer communication, the timing at which we need to implement. There’s nothing there that we’ve seen so far that would indicate a need for amendments.”

Yuval Barzakay, vice-president of Toronto-based Comwave, said the decision doesn’t take into account what VoIP does. About 30 per cent of Comwave’s customers move their telephone adapters to a location the provider doesn’t know about, he said.

“I may sell a 416 number to a 416 customer, they may move across the street, in which case it would go into a different jurisdiction. Today that would still have to go to a 416 911 centre,” he said. “That could create chaos for local 911 offices.”

Although he said Comwave is fully 911 compliant today, Barzakay said the firm is drafting a letter to clarify the CRTC’s definition of a fixed service as one that has no capability for mobility.

“A Comwave iPhone or a Primus product is clearly highly mobile,” he said. “We’re not sure if their ruling is more for the cable operators, where the product is attached to the side of the house and there is no mobility.”

In the CRTC hearings last year, Primus Canada president Ted Chislett noted 911 service is controlled by the incumbent local exchange carriers, and some public safety answering points (PSAPs) cannot accept calls from other providers. Therefore, Primus depends on the ILECs to make changes to their systems. Monday’s decision will change that, he said.

“That’s something we’ve been wanting to do, but there was no back-door access to PSAPs,” he said, adding that not all VoIP providers are necessarily ready to meet the 90-day requirement. “I think some people were hoping to be not regulated, but we think this is something that’s clearly in the public service.”

The CRTC said it would be deferring some long-term issues to a Interconnection Steering Committee, which included participation from several providers. Grant said the initial decision shows the CRTC is struggling to keep pace with changes in the sector, particularly in areas where there are no continent-wide rules.

“When we look at how VoIP is going to be used, it’s going to be Saskatoon area codes in Pheonix or Scottsdale,” he said. “We’ll be relying on the vendor to meet those needs.”

The CRTC is expected to hold a conference on Tuesday where it will address any questions from VoIP providers on its decision.

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