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Congress pushes 911 mandate on VoIP

New legislation that would require Internet phone services to handle emergency calls nudges the FCC along.

Congress is joining the effort to force Internet telephone companies to link up to the emergency 911 network.

A 10-page measure, which has been introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives, also would permit state and local governments to levy taxes on voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) companies in exchange for providing access to 911 operators.

The was made public just hours before a Federal Communications Commission meeting devoted to Internet 911 regulations, at which the FCC set a late September deadline by which Net phone carriers would have to provide 911 service equivalent to that available over landline or cell phones.

"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," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., a sponsor of the bill.

In the last few months, regulators and legislators alike have become transfixed by horror stories like that of a Florida woman who claims that Vonage's poor 911 service played a role in her daughter's death. VoIP services can connect to 911, but often at a lower priority and without communicating location-identifying information.

Texas' attorney general has sued Vonage over its 911 service, an online petition has popped up, and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein even quoted the Talmud on Thursday when saying that 911 regulations must apply to VoIP. The FCC's vote to impose a 120-day deadline on VoIP providers to implement 911 service was unanimous.

The federal legislation also says that 911 emergency services must provide "nondiscriminatory" access to VoIP providers, and for the time being, a VoIP provider that doesn't work properly with 911 "shall provide a clear" notice to customers. Only VoIP providers that link up to the public telephone network would be covered.