VoIP Players to Tackle 911

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will continue its exploration of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) issues Thursday when it hosts a public conference focusing on 911 access for Internet telephony users.

Regulators are concerned emergency responders will be unable to properly locate VoIP callers, largely because Internet Protocol-based, packet-switched calls are incompatible with circuit-switched telephone technology. Unlike traditional telephone numbers bolted to physical addresses, VoIP numbers are tethered to IP addresses, making the precise location of the caller problematic.

Scheduled participants include Jeffrey Citron, chairman and CEO of VoIP provider Vonage; Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association; Marc Linsner, a consulting engineer at Cisco Systems; and Connie Hughes of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has long praised the promise of unregulated IP-enabled services such as VoIP, and he is fashioning a minimum regulatory approach as the agency begins a year-long examination of proposed IP-related rules.

Powell, however, has also cautioned the industry and promised Congress that public safety and law enforcement issues will be thoroughly reviewed. With that goal in mind, the FCC’s Internet Policy Working Group is slated to meet today in order to discuss approaches to 911 policy issues.

Since reliable 911 services are considered essential to moving both consumers and business to broadband VoIP services, the industry says it is highly motivated to quickly resolve the location issues. Edison, N.J.-based Vonage, which has 125,000 consumer lines in service, currently allows users to register location information for use in a 911 situation.

In December, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and a coalition of VoIP companies announced they had reached an agreement on key elements of providing 911 services to VoIP users, including a pledge to provide at least routing to public safety answering points (PSAPs), which handle emergency calls, within the next three to six months.

AT&T’s planned spring roll out of residential broadband VoIP service in select metropolitan areas depends on routing emergency calls to PSAPs.

The agreement between the VoIP providers brought a rebuke from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). In a letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the group said dumping VoIP 911 calls on PSAPs, which are already struggling to add wireless calls to their landline base, is an unacceptable solution.

“Some VoIP providers have recently agreed to work toward permanent solutions on a voluntary basis and, in the interim, to begin routing 911 calls to 10-digit emergency numbers in the near future,” APCO President Vincent Stile wrote. “It takes a 21st century technology and shoves it into a 1960s method of reporting life-threatening emergencies.”

APCO urged enforceable regulations be put in place while VoIP is still developing, “before the imbedded base of systems and equipment becomes larger.”

VoIP attorney Bill Wilhelm, who represented Vonage in its regulatory scuffles with the Minnesota Public Utility Commission last summer, said in any regulatory proceeding the main concerns are “rules and regulations might get passed before the technology is understood.”

Wilhelm said the VoIP sector is expected to improve future 911 services. The FCC, for that matter, has similar expectations.

“Before we make any decision with respect to regulation, it is important that we develop a fuller understanding of the ways in which IP-enabled services or IP protocols can facilitate 911 [deployment],” the FCC said. “We recognize, too, that IP-enabled services may enhance the capabilities of PSAPs and first responders — and thus promote pubic safety — by providing information that cannot be conveyed by non-IP-enabled systems.”

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