VoIP emergency-dialing bill passed by U.S. Senate

Legislation that requires the operators of 911 networks to allow VoIP providers to connect has been passed by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate on Monday passed the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act by unanimous consent. The legislation passed the House of Representatives in November, but the Senate made some changes, so the bill will have to go back to the House for approval.

In May 2005, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to require VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) providers to offer enhanced 911, or E911, to their customers by early 2006. But VoIP providers have run into several problems, and the FCC extended its deadline.

Some VoIP providers have complained that some 911 networks, controlled by traditional telecom carriers, have blocked access and some emergency dispatch centers have worried about legal liability if VoIP 911 calls fail.

The legislation, which had bipartisan support in the House and Senate, would give dispatch centers liability protection when handling VoIP calls. It would require that 911 networks connect VoIP providers using the same rates and conditions they use when connecting mobile phone carriers. And it requires the U.S. government to create a plan for migrating to IP-based 911 networks.

The VON Coalition, a trade group for VoIP providers, praised the Senate for passing the bill. “Today’s Senate action is a big win for public safety, broadband consumers, and innovators alike,” said Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the VON Coalition. “Dialing 911 can be the most important call a person ever makes. That is why VoIP providers have made providing 911 emergency service in an Internet world a paramount priority.”

Currently, VoIP providers in the U.S. offer E911 service to more than 97 percent of their customers, Kohlenberger said. E911 gives dispatch centers the location of the 911 caller.

Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, pushed an amendment to the bill that requires the U.S. government to focus on developing next-generation 911 capabilities. Many rural areas don’t yet have access to the newer E911 services, Stevens said in a statement.

Similar VoIP 911 legislation was first introduced more than three years ago.

“Congress has been working on this important legislation for several years and I am pleased to see that it is finally moving forward,” Stevens said in a statement. “This measure will ensure that our nation’s 911 laws are up-to-date with new technologies and will continue to save lives.”

Representatives of telecom carriers Verizon Communications and AT&T didn’t immediate respond to a request for comments on the bill. Verizon announced in April 2005 that it would allow competing VoIP to connect to E911 service.

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