FCC Proposes Rule Changes for Obtaining Telephone Numbers

Interconnected VoIP providers may soon have direct access to numbering resources, and the significance of area codes could become a thing of the past.

Have you ever wondered where telephone numbers come from? Well, kids, there’s this bird called a stork that delivers the numbers to your phone company which is very happy to receive them…

If only it were that simple.

Telephone numbers aren’t just made up by the phone companies. There are complex rules and processes (and history) involved in determining where numbers are assigned geographically, which sequences of numbers can be assigned, and which companies are ultimately allowed to have access to the numbers. Of course, these processes ultimately involve the FCC, which has authority over all telephone numbers in the U.S.

In a recent release containing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), Order and Notice of Inquiry (NOI) the FCC is looking to make some changes to how telephone numbers are obtained by certain types of providers and, eventually, the fundamentals of what we understand a telephone number to represent.

Unfortunately, no, the FCC still doesn’t have a way to make telephone numbers magically immune from robocallers.

In the near-term, rules proposed in the NPRM (if adopted) would allow interconnected VoIP providers to have direct access to telephone numbers instead of having to obtain them through  carriers. The NPRM seeks comment on this proposal and the associated issues. To test out its proposals and gather data, the FCC’s Order is allowing certain interconnected VoIP providers – including, specifically, Vonage – to have direct access to telephone numbers as part of a limited trial.

For the long-term, the FCC is seeking, through the NOI, comment on various issues related to whether telephone numbers should be disassociated from specific geographic locations.

In other words, in the future area codes such as 212, 305, and 404 might not be tied specifically to Manhattan, Miami and Atlanta… but more on that a little later.

The NPRM and Order

Telephone numbers for the U.S. and 19 other North American countries are administered under the North American Numbering Plan (NANP). Under the FCC’s rules, telephone numbers in the U.S. can be obtained directly only from the numbering administrators by telecommunications carriers that are authorized to provide services in the geographic areas for which numbers are being requested. This authorization must be in the form of an FCC license or lease (e.g., for cellular service providers) or a state public utility commission certification to provide traditional local telephone services or competitive local exchange services.

Interconnected VoIP providers are currently not considered “telecommunications carriers” or “telecommunications service” providers by the FCC (we blogged about that distinction here) and are mostly unregulated at the state level. Consequently, interconnected VoIP providers typically do not meet the FCC’s requirements for obtaining direct access to telephone numbers. Instead, these VoIP providers (as well as many other non-traditional service providers) must obtain telephone numbers by partnering with carriers that do qualify for direct access.

No big deal, right? Well, according to Vonage and several other companies providing interconnected VoIP (and related) services, it is. Back in 2005 (and again in 2011), Vonage petitioned for a waiver of the FCC’s “must have an authorization” rule so that it could obtain direct access to telephone numbers. Vonage asserted, among other things, that not having direct access to telephone numbers served as a barrier to the efficient routing of calls to its customers. Vonage claimed that having direct access would improve network reliability, reduce costs (by cutting out the middle-man), and allow for deployment of innovative services and features.

Vonage’s petition was opposed by several parties, including a number of competitive local exchange carriers concerned about routing, interconnection, exhaustion of telephone numbers and other issues which could arise from allowing “non-carriers” direct access to telephone numbers. Indeed, these parties continued to lobby against even allowing Vonage a limited trial access to telephone numbers in the days leading up to the FCC’s NPRM/Order/NOI release.

Ultimately, the FCC decided to grant Vonage a limited waiver, subject to numerous conditions, so that the company could obtain direct access to telephone numbers as part of a trial run. Similar waiver requests previously filed by other interconnected VoIP providers were also granted on a limited trial basis as long as those providers agreed to the same conditions as Vonage and filed an approved proposal with the FCC. The FCC intends to use data gathered under these trials to help inform its decision on whether and how to permanently allow all interconnected VoIP providers to have direct access to telephone numbers.

The FCC will not be considering any new waiver requests to participate in this technical trial. Interconnected VoIP providers who did not already have a waiver request on file with the FCC will likely need to wait until the proposed rules become final.

Concurrent with the trials, the FCC seeks comment – through the NPRM – on issues associated with the proposal to permanently grant interconnected VoIP providers direct access to telephone numbers. The NPRM invites general comments on the proposal, as well as comments on more specific issues such as the type of documentation required to obtain numbers, utilization requirements, measures to prevent waste of numbering resources, enforcement actions for violations of numbering rules, call routing and termination concerns, local number portability, and intercarrier compensation.

The NPRM also seeks comment on the possibility of expanding direct access to telephone numbers to providers of other types of innovative communications services (for example, telematics, machine-to-machine and one-way VoIP) and allowing VoIP Positioning Center providers access to pseudo-ANI (automatic number identification) codes for purposes of providing 911 and E911 service.

The NOI

Historically, telephone numbers essentially served as addresses and were utilized to route calls to designated telephone switches serving only customers in specific geographic areas. Hence, you could readily determine where a telephone customer was physically located based upon the first three digits of the telephone number, the area code. The significance of geographic area codes can often be seen in popular culture, such as this TV sitcom episode about 212 versus 646 in New York, or this rap song about conquests in different area codes.

However, as we have all noticed, the association of area codes with geographic locations has diminished over the years as more and more telephone users transition away from fixed telephone lines and towards more portable services like cell phones or VoIP. A caller from a 212 number no longer has to be physically located in Manhattan, and calls to a 305 number might actually reach someone in Texas instead of Miami. With the advance of technology, geographic telephone numbers are no longer determinative for the routing of calls to their final destinations.

Accordingly, the FCC’s NOI seeks comment on a range of issues related to a possible transition to non-geographically distributed telephone numbers. Among other things, the NOI seeks comment on the practical and policy implications of such a transition, whether there are any benefits or limitations to simply retaining the current system, public safety issues such as routing of 911 calls, interconnection concerns, and how to administer a non-geographic distribution regime.

Here’s what we want to know – what will artists rap about in the future after geographic area codes become a thing of the past . . . IP addresses?

To see all of the issues on which the FCC is seeking comment, the NPRM, Order and NOI can be accessed here. Interested parties will have 30 days to submit comments after the FCC’s release is published in the Federal Register. Stay tuned for an update once the comment deadlines are announced.

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