CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again


Senators back Net phone reprieve

Net phone customers without 911 access may not be faced with a forcible disconnection after all.

WASHINGTON--Internet phone customers without 911 service would get a reprieve from forcible disconnection, according to a bill approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.

The measure says the Federal Communications Commission must rethink recent regulations that have recently caused an outcry from voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers--and at times, public safety officials.

The senators aren't, however, backing away from the requirement that VoIP providers offer enhanced 911 (e911) service. "This came home painfully to me because of a mother in Florida that raced to her telephone as her baby daughter was in a dire circumstance," Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Republican, said at Wednesday's Commerce Committee meeting. "It was VoIP. She didn't know she didn't have e911, and the baby died."

But some VoIP companies have argued that they would have to disconnect a huge number of customers--as many as 90 percent in at least one case--because they don't have the resources to meet the FCC's demands by its prescribed deadline. FCC regulations adopted in May set a Nov. 28 deadline by which Net phone operators must re-engineer their systems to connect users to the enhanced 911 network--a next-generation system that automatically steers calls to a geographically appropriate emergency call center and identifies the call's originating address.

The rules also included a controversial provision that required VoIP providers to cut off subscribers who had not formally acknowledged, by a certain date, possible limitations in accessing 911 services.

The approved bill--amended from an earlier version--would change that, so the VoIP community was quick to praise the Senate's action on Wednesday. Staci Pies, president of the Voice On the Net Coalition, which represents a large group of VoIP interests, said in a statement that the measure "answered the call for workable emergency services in the Internet world."

VoIP reprieve
Answering one of the primary complaints from VoIP companies, the approved bill would give the FCC 120 days to devise new requirements "that are technologically and operationally feasible."

It would also allow the FCC to waive those requirements for up to a year for companies that have, among other conditions, demonstrated that it is not, in fact, "technically or operationally feasible" to provide enhanced 911 service. The news was welcomed by VoIP providers who have argued that compliance with the FCC's rule would take an unreasonably large investment in call routers for obscure locations in order to recognize the location of "nomadic" users all over the world.

"There are areas where we know services will be a little late, rural areas where they don't have the money to upgrade," said Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, one of the co-sponsors of the amended bill.

The bill would also prohibit the agency from requiring VoIP providers to disconnect any customers, provided that the customers had subscribed before Dec. 31, 2005, and submitted a written or electronic acknowledgment of possible 911 limitations to the company, and that the company continued to give "clear and conspicuous notice" of the lack of 911 services in billing statements and other documents.

As in the old version, the measure would shield VoIP providers and users and emergency call centers from liability if anything went wrong--for instance, if a call was dropped along the way. It would also require owners of the public safety infrastructure to provide VoIP providers access to 911 components needed to make connections.

FCC's regulations curbed
All of those features provide crucial assistance to VoIP providers trying to achieve compliance, said Jason Talley, CEO of Nuvio, a Kansas City, Mo.-based VoIP company. Unlike the FCC's limited guidance, he said, "the Senate is saying we're going to give you the tools to make it happen as well."

After some debate, the committee also approved an amendment offered by Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, that would prevent the FCC from requiring a "specific technology, product or technological standard" in order to link up to the 911 network.

But the bill still must win approval from the rest of Congress and earn the president's signature before it can become law. So, at least for now, legal challenges to the FCC's existing rule remain.

Nuvio and three other VoIP companies on Tuesday filed an "emergency" measure asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to consider overturning that deadline, which they argue is "technically infeasible" and would force some companies to disconnect as many as 90 percent of their customers--effectively putting them out of business. Nuvio has already challenged the rules on the grounds that the timeline simply isn't realistic from a technological standpoint.

The court instructed the FCC to submit a response to the VoIP companies' filing by Nov. 8. Talley said he hoped the judge would decide whether to put the FCC regulations on hold within a week of that date.

"I've got customers who depend on this service, and I can't allow them to not tell me what's going to happen to these customers until Nov. 25 or 26," Talley said, pointing to the FCC's history of last-minute clarifications on the matter. "If we're forced to disconnect customers with two days' notice, and there's an emergency and they need to use the phones, we really open up a situation where that user is harmed."