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Congress to take up VoIP 911 rules in September

As FCC's first deadline for VoIP providers approaches, lawmakers plan to revisit bill aimed at fleshing out requirements.

WASHINGTON--Congress expects to begin hearings on its proposed 911 service requirements for VoIP providers in September, a congressional assistant announced at a seminar here Thursday.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in May introduced a joint measure that would require all voice over Internet Protocol providers connected to the public telephone network to link up customers to the 911 network as well. Just hours later, the Federal Communications Commission announced its own set of rules, which took effect June 29.

Under those rules, by next Friday the FCC expects VoIP providers to have warned their current and future customers of the 911 access limitations, received acknowledgment of the warning from each customer and mailed out warning stickers that customers should post near their VoIP-using devices. VoIP providers also have 120 days, or until the end of November, to rework their systems so that they can route calls to the 911 network and furnish at least a manual means for users to register their physical location for emergency dispatchers to see.

The FCC may have overstepped its boundaries in releasing the rules, said Dana Lichtenberg, a legislative assistant to Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who introduced the legislation in the House. Because VoIP is considered an information, rather than a telecommunications service, the FCC's authority over VoIP is unclear, she added.

"Clearly Congress is the only entity that has the authority to look at this issue from end to end," she said at the seminar, which addressed VoIP security and safety issues.

Nevertheless, Congress under the proposed legislation would, in fact, give the FCC the power to set requirements for VoIP providers, though "only to the extent that the commission determines such regulations are technologically and operationally feasible," according to the text of the bill.

The bill would also require that IP-enabled services receive "nondiscriminatory" access to the emergency services infrastructure, while holding VoIP providers responsible for designing functional systems to grant that access and for notifying their customers before the access becomes available. It would protect VoIP providers from getting sued, as it does for wireless and wireline companies, once the 911 access is in place.

Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the Voice On the Net Coalition, a VoIP advocacy organization, said on a panel that meeting the FCC's 120-day requirements is a "very big challenge." But the proposed legislation "is providing some progress," he added, by giving the liability relief and facilitating access to the 911 networks.

In a lunch appearance at the seminar, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., indicated that the FCC rules were not set in stone.

"I think everyone in the IP industry understands that there are going to have to be some kind of waivers, because not everyone is going to be able to be compliant in 120 days," he said, adding that the time window would give lawmakers a good initial read on the "state of the technology.".

Sununu also suggested that the Senate bill would not sail through unchanged, voicing concern over the proposed provision that state and local governments could levy fees on VoIP providers in exchange for 911 services. Such a practice could "actually discourage innovation and deployment of new technology," he argued.

He said to expect action on the bill to pick up after the August recess.