Vonage, emergency responders support 911 bill

Emergency dispatchers and VoIP provider Vonage Tuesday urged U.S. senators to pass a bill intended to ensure that all VoIP customers can dial the emergency 911 service.

About 5% of Vonage's customers do not have access to 911 service, even though the FCC voted in May 2005 to require it from most VoIP providers. The problem is that Vonage can't get access to the 911 facilities controlled by competitors or because some dispatch centers are worried about legal liability if VoIP 911 calls fail, said Sharon O'Leary, executive vice president and chief legal officer for Vonage.

But the IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act, introduced in January by Senator Bill Nelson, would fix those problems, O'Leary said. The bill would fix problems out of VoIP providers' control by requiring telecom companies that control 911 facilities to connect to VoIP providers and protecting dispatch centers from legal liability. The bill would also require VoIP providers to give a clear and conspicuous notice to customers who cannot receive 911 service.

"By including access provisions in the legislation, you ensure that the 911 system remains a public trust, not a tool to block competition," O'Leary said during a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Nelson (D-Fla.) applauded the FCC for requiring VoIP providers to offer 911 service. But he noted that some problems remain. "There are some holes we need to fill," he said.

In recent years, there have been multiple reports of VoIP customers attempting to dial 911, not realizing that their service did not support the emergency dialing capability. Some VoIP providers have offered 911 service to all or nearly all of their customers; others have had difficulty meeting the FCC requirements.

Other witnesses during the Senate hearing called Congress to go farther than the Nelson bill. VoIP providers should not be allowed to offer service to customers to whom they cannot provide 911, said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International Inc. and a dispatch trainer in Fort Worth, Texas.

The public expects 911 service to be available when they pick up the phone, she said. "There is no room for error," she said. "Nine-one-one must not be an afterthought to new consumer services."

But VoIP isn't the only phone service that sometimes lacks 911 capabilities, added Jason Barbour, president of the National Emergency Number Association and 911 director in Johnston County, North Carolina. Three percent of U.S. landline phones, mainly in rural areas, don't have access to enhanced 911, which gives dispatchers the location of the call. And 40 percent of U.S. counties to not have access to enhanced 911 for mobile phones, he said.

In addition, the 911 system needs to be updated to show what floor a mobile caller is on, added Stephen Meer, CTO for Intrado, a vendor of 911 support technologies for carriers.

The 911 system is beginning to show its age, Barbour added. "We need to ensure when someone pushes the panic button, we receive that panic call," he said.

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