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May 20, 2005

Mandatory VoIP 911 Bills Introduced

By Roy Mark

Lawmakers want to trump the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Thursday call for mandatory 911 Voice over IP service with legislation of their own.

Thursday, the FCC gave Internet telephone companies four months to provide 911 service to their customers. It also ordered incumbent carriers to make their emergency networks accessible to VoIP providers.

On the eve of that decision, lawmakers in both the U.S. Senate and House introduced remarkably similar legislation to the FCC's order. The I.P.-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act requires VoIP providers to ensure that 911 and enhanced 911 (E911) services are available to customers.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is sponsoring the bill in the Senate along with co-sponsors Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) is the House sponsor.

"Sen. Burns is pleased to see the FCC action," a Burns spokeswoman said Friday. "The more action on this issue, the better. It brings attention and awareness to the issue."

Like the FCC order, the legislation requires VoIP providers to inform both their new and existing customers of the 911 capabilities and limitations of their service.

"The few seconds it takes someone to realize that their broadband connection cannot reach 911 can be the difference between life and death, and we cannot waste that time during an emergency," Burns said in a statement. "I am committed to making sure people in every corner of our country can successfully dial these three numbers from whatever type of phone they're calling from."

Although the FCC is conducting a lengthy study of potential regulation of IP services, the agency rushed ahead with its 911 finding following several incidents in which consumers were unable to reach emergency services through their VoIP broadband connection.

Currently, Internet telephone services route 911 calls to public safety administrative offices instead of directly sending the calls to Public Service Answering Points. Other VoIP providers offer no 911 services at all.

"Advances in technology should make life better, not put our lives on the line," said Nelson, who, along with Burns, serves on the Senate committee overseeing U.S. telecommunications services.

Clinton noted that more than 3 million VoIP lines will be in service by the end of the year, with projections predicting almost 27 million lines by the end of the decade.

"Americans have the right to expect that their emergency call, whether made on a land line, cell phone or VoIP phone, is responded to," she said.

In the Senate, the bill now goes to the Commerce Committee while the House Energy and Commerce Committee will vet Gordon's bill.

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