VoIP 911 Bill Sets Stage for FCC Action

A bill introduced today in the Congress of the United States sets the stage and provides necessary legal support for the regulatory actions that the FCC is expected to take at its regular meeting tomorrow, May 19, in Washington, D.C.

The bill, the IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act of 2005, introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), includes key features for the FCC as it acts to fix the problems with access to enhanced 911 services by VoIP subscribers.

On the Senate side, senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced very similar legislation, called the I.P.-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act. That bill “would require voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers to ensure that 911 and enhanced 911 (E911) services are available to customers,” according to a statement by Burns, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the author of the original legislation for enhanced 911.

Meanwhile, the House bill says the FCC unambiguously has the right to prescribe regulations on this issue and to enforce them, says Dana Lichtenberg, the legislative assistant for Gordon, who spearheaded work on the bill. It also gives VoIP service providers nondiscriminatory access to new and existing 911 infrastructure at just and reasonable rates, terms and conditions, which mirrors what wireless companies have today for 911, says Lichtenberg.

The Wireless Act of 1999 specifies the requirements for wireless service providers and gives them access to the system, so we are doing that now for VoIP providers, explains Lichtenberg.

The House bill also guarantees Good Samaritan protection for PSAPs that accept VoIP calls protection now granted for providing 911 services to wireless and wireline callers. We have heard anecdotally that some PSAPs dont want to accept VoIP calls because they are not protected, says Lichtenberg. The bill uses the same language as 1999s wireless act.

Further, the legislation clarifies that states have right to bring new VoIP service providers into the 911 system, which would include contributing to the 911 funds. Congress thinks they need to pay like everyone else to support the system in general, says Lichtenberg.

Finally, the bill directs the new National 911 Office at the Department of Commerce to come back to Congress with a plan to migrate to an IP 911 system. This is the next generation, which will hopefully solve some of the problems we have with the patchwork system today, says Lichtenberg.

The bill immediately was praised by the VON Coalition, a VoIP advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. These lawmakers understand that providing 911 and enhanced 911 services is a shared responsibility requiring the development of new industry standards and technologies, as well as coordination among public safety agencies, VoIP providers, and incumbent local exchange carriers who own the emergency services infrastructure, says Staci Pies, president, VON Coalition. They recognize that providing E911 requires direct access to the 911 network itself, equivalent liability relief for 911 call takers, and assurances that someone will be there to answer the phone.

Lichtenberg says the development of the bill involved input from many sources. We worked with everyone: the FCC, competitors, wireline providers, wireless, VON [Coalition], NENA [National Emergency Number Association], and many others who put their two cents in, and this time we brought in the PSAPs for a change, Lichtenberg notes, adding, The industry is working on broad industry standards on this issue and access needs to be consistent with those standards as a way to make sure that this happens rapidly and logically.

The timing on how the bill will move through Congress was not clear at press time, but it is likely that it will be considered first in the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, chaired by Fred Upton (R-Mich.), of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House.

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