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This week in Net telephony

Both the FCC and Congress take steps to ensure the availability of 911 to Net phone subscribers. Also: Ambert alerts head for your phone.

For people concerned about being to dial 911 from a Net phone, this was a good week, with the FCC and Congress taking steps to ensure the availability of emergency services.

In one of the biggest challenges yet for the young VoIP industry, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted unanimously that commercial Net phone operators must be able to steer 911 calls to the geographically appropriate emergency call center.

In addition, the calls themselves must be accompanied by the originating address and phone number, the FCC said. Carriers will have 120 days to comply after the ruling is published, which is expected soon.

The commission is responding to concerns from lawmakers and the public about a growing number of U.S. residents who use VoIP services. VoIP, or voice over Internet Protocol, allows a broadband connection to double as a phone line, and Net phone calling plans are cheaper than regular landline plans. But because the calls aren't routed through the traditional phone system, carriers must engineer a way to get them onto the 911 infrastructure serving the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. That task involves many technical, business and political hurdles.

The ruling is expected to have the greatest impact on nomadic companies--carriers who hand out VoIP numbers that aren't based on where customers live.

Just hours before the meeting at which the FCC passed its 911 regulation, a new bill dealing with the same issues was made public.

The bill would force VoIP carriers to link up to the 911 network. The 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 VoIP companies in exchange for providing access to 911 operators.

In related news, another emergency service got a boost when nearly a dozen cell phone carriers announced they would begin broadcasting Amber Alerts to their customers, as the industry looks to cast a wide net in locating missing and kidnapped children. Cingular Wireless, Nextel Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are among the nine cell phone carriers that will participate in the program, along with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and wireless industry group CTIA.

The free service will be available to cellular subscribers who can receive text messages on their phones. Customers will have to register at either the Wireless Amber Alerts Web site, or through their cell phone carriers.