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FCC Mandates 911 VoIP Service

UPDATED: WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted today to require Internet telephone companies to provide emergency 911 service to all their customers.

The FCC also ordered incumbent carriers to provide access to their 911 networks to Internet telephone companies, including access to trunk lines, selective routers and 911 databases.

The order does not specify how the Voice over IP firms will interconnect with the incumbent carriers or what the rates will be.

"By not dictating the technical means by which providers must come into compliance, we do not impose undue regulation on these services," new FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.

With the emergence of commercially viable Internet telephone service over the last two years, companies such as Vonage have come under fire for not providing the same type of 911 service as traditional landlines and cellular carriers.

Because of the nomadic nature of VoIP, Internet telephone services frequently 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.

"The requirement to provide access to 911 is about public safety," Martin said. "Because the commission previously found that the VoIP services at issue were interstate, the commission assumed the responsibility to ensure that basic public safety requirements are implemented and satisfied."

Martin noted that Congress mandates the FCC to promote "safety of life and property. This obligation transcends new technologies and cannot be compromised."

The FCC order must first be published in the Federal Register and then becomes effective 120 days after that. It is expected to become effective sometime this fall.

According to the FCC, Internet telephone companies must deliver all 911 calls to the customer's local emergency operator. VoIP firms are required to provide the emergency operators with a callback number and the location information of their customers where the emergency operator is capable of receiving it.

In addition, VoIP providers must inform both their new and existing customers of the 911 capabilities and limitations of their service.

"Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that he or she will be connected to an emergency operator," Martin said. "This expectation exists whether that person is dialing 911 from a traditional wireline phone, a wireless phone or a VoIP phone."

Martin added, "Today, we take this action to ensure this expectation is met as soon as possible."

While praising Martin for pushing the issue, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps also took the opportunity to question former Chairman Michael Powell's approach to IP-based services.

"Last November, the commission asserted that certain VoIP services were interstate in nature," Copps said. "Seen by some as a grand and glorious pronouncement, others of us warned that a simple assertion of Washington control without indication of what this meant ... was hardly the stuff of bold leadership. Preemption without policy is power without responsibility."

Copps said the "sad fact" is that the FCC has spent "so much time splitting hairs about what is a telecommunications service and what is an information service that we have endangered public safety."

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy called the decision a "giant step forward."

"Just as important, it will help safeguard consumers in the interim prior to full implementation by requiring all VoIP providers to affirmatively warn consumers of current limitations in 911 availablity," she said.