US passes bill to streamline VOIP 911 service

The House of Representatives passes a bill intended to streamline VOIP emergency dialing requirements.

The US House of Representatives has passed a bill designed to streamline VOIP providers' connections to emergency dialing 911 networks.

The House passed the 911 Modernization and Public Safety Act, which requires VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) providers to offer enhanced 911, or E-911, service, which pinpoints the caller's location.

The bill also requires that the large telecom carriers that own the 911 networks allow VOIP providers to be able to connect to the networks, and it requires the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration to put together a plan for a national IP-based emergency dialing network that can handle video and data traffic.

The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), a trade group representing telecom carriers and equipment providers, praised the House for passing the bill, sponsored by Representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat. The bill allows for a transition to a nationwide IP network "no matter what type of communications technology is being used," TIA President Grant Seiffert said in a statement.

Gordon, during a September hearing, noted that about 98 million US residents live in areas where VOIP providers don't have access to 911 networks. "When Americans dial 911, they expect the call will go through regardless of what technology they use to place the call," he said then. "But that's not always the case."

Independent VOIP providers including Vonage have complained that some large carriers have blocked access to 911 networks, or that some emergency dispatch centers have balked because of concerns over legal liability if VOIP 911 calls fail. Vonage in April expressed support for a similar bill, the IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act, which is pending action in the US Senate.

As of April, about 5 percent of Vonage's customers lacked access to 911 service, even though the US Federal Communications Commission voted in May 2005 to require it from most VOIP providers. A Vonage spokeswoman wasn't immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Gordon's bill has also earned support from several organizations representing people with disabilities. The national IP network envisioned in the bill would allow text-based services to link with the voice-based emergency dialing network, the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology said in September.

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