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VoIP systems must offer full 911 services

By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
Federal regulators addressed a growing safety concern Thursday by voting to require Internet-based phone services to provide full-featured 911 service this year just as wireline phones do.

After hearing wrenching testimony from a Florida woman who was unable to summon help for her dying infant daughter, the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-0 to force Voice-over-Internet-Protocol services to provide the full-featured "Enhanced 911" by this fall.

The move, which had been expected, comes after several high-profile incidents in which VoIP subscribers could not reach 911 operators. Cheryl Waller of Deltona, Fla., said she heard a recording when she used her Internet phone to call 911 after her daughter stopped breathing in March. By the time she called for help with a neighbor's phone, the child was dead.

"This situation is simply unacceptable," says FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

VoIP service, which can offer unlimited local and long-distance calling for as little as about $16 a month, routes phone calls over a subscriber's broadband Internet line. About half the USA's 3 million VoIP customers get their service from cable companies that do provide E-911.

But the other half get their service from Vonage and other suppliers. Those companies typically offer a basic 911 service that doesn't display a caller's number or address to operators. Calls often aren't answered promptly because they ring on administrative lines in a dispatch center rather than on emergency lines.

Under the FCC ruling, VoIP providers must fix that problem and give customers a way to update their location each time they use the service away from home.

Vonage has pinned the problems largely on the fact that local phone companies control E-911 databases and call-routing systems. Until recently, the Bell companies failed to agree with VoIP providers on the terms for sharing those systems.

The FCC isn't forcing the phone companies to provide E-911 access to VoIP companies such as Vonage. But all four regional Bells - Verizon, SBC, Qwest and BellSouth - have reached or are close to reaching deals with Vonage for access to their 911 networks.

A House bill introduced this week would force local phone companies to open their E-911 systems to all VoIP companies at "reasonable" rates.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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