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Senators mull new taxes to fund 911 Net upgrade

An IP-based system could be more resilient and accept emergency requests in formats way beyond voice. But who will pay?

WASHINGTON--Americans may face new taxes on their phone bills to help finance a potentially expensive overhaul of the 911 emergency system to an Internet Protocol-based network.

During a hearing on Tuesday, U.S. senators said it's still unclear how this transition will work in practice. But they indicated it may be necessary to levy new charges on all telephone bills--including landlines, mobile and Internet phones--to help public safety officials cover the costs.

"I don't think we can go into a markup to pass a bill that has no future unless you have money," Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said at a Senate Commerce hearing here about the future of 911 systems. Inouye was referring to a bill that would encourage the switchover but allocates no tax dollars to pay for it.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) called for suggestions on how to ensure the cost of the upgrades is spread out as broadly as possible, which could sweep in categories of phones such as voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. (Vonage, for instance collects 911 fees in 23 states and says it does so voluntarily because no law requires it.)

"Somehow or another we've got to find a way to have people pay for this service, or it's not going to be sustained for very long," Stevens said, adding: "I do think we have to figure out how to spread it out as broadly as possible so (the cost per person is) as small as possible."

An amendment proposed by Stevens to a larger Senate homeland security bill this year would also set aside $43.5 million in federal grants for upgrading emergency networks, but that bill has not yet received final approval.

After Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the importance of resilient emergency communications systems, public safety officials have cited a host of benefits to overhauling the nation's 911 systems so that they are IP-enabled.

Such a shift could help to harden emergency networks during natural disasters or other crises that result in physical damage to 911 call-receiving centers, by allowing emergency coordinators to reroute call data packets to other regions of the country. Current 911 networks can generally receive only voice calls, but an IP-based system could also allow emergency dispatchers to receive distress calls by text message or or camera phone images.

Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, said even the current method for funding 911 technology is inadequate, in part because not all wireless and Internet phone services collect 911 surcharges from their subscribers. Meanwhile, the number of landlines, whose carriers are legally obligated to collect 911 surcharges, is dwindling, leaving funding of 911 services in a tough spot, she said. She applauded the bill under consideration, which would give states and localities the power to collect 911-related fees from Internet phone providers.

Vonage Vice President Sharon O'Leary cautioned the senators against rushing to require that new fees be imposed. About 95 percent of the Internet phone provider's some 2.2 million customers can now dial into the enhanced 911 network, allowing dispatchers to discern the caller's location, a step above older systems.

"I would look very closely at fees that are currently being collected and how they are being spent," she said, adding: "In many instances, with new technologies, costs go down."

That's not necessarily the case in this situation, said Stephen Meer, chief technology officer for Intrado, which makes 911 networking equipment. Meer, who expects components of his company's IP-enabled 911 networking equipment to be deployed by year's end, said, "The net is, there will be more costs paid by the American public to have more features as the system grows more complex."

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