U.S. VoIP regulation bill approved in committee

A U.S. Senate committee has approved a bill that would exempt voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service from most government regulation.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Thursday approved the VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004, with some amendments added. The bill, sponsored by Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, exempts VoIP service from state taxes and regulations and defines it as a lightly regulated information service for U.S. government regulators.

But some of the amendments subject VoIP to some regulation. Among the amendments approved by the committee are a change to the bill that reserves the ability of states to require VoIP applications to provide 911 services and a change that allows states to continue to require VoIP providers to contribute to state universal service programs and to pay intrastate access charges to other telecom providers.

Sununu said in a statement he hopes the bill will be passed by Congress this year. A similar bill in the House has not yet moved through committee there.

“This is an important step forward, and a small victory in the effort to establish a clear and limited regulatory framework for IP services like VoIP,” Sununu said in his statement. “Despite the addition of two amendments, the basic message is clear: Congress does not want states implementing new regulations that will inhibit this emerging technology.”

CompTel/ASCENT, a telecom trade group, issued a statement saying it is disappointed in the amendments. While the group is encouraged that the Senate has begun “serious debate” on VoIP, the group is “disappointed in the success of efforts to impose inappropriate obligations on this nascent technology,” H. Russell Frisby Jr., CompTel/ASCENT chief executive officer, said in a statement. The potential of VoIP could be hurt by what Frisby called a “premature assessment of fees and taxes.”

In addition to efforts in Congress, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering whether VoIP is a regulated telecommunications service or a lightly regulated information service.

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