Web phone services call for help with e-911

Faced with a new federal deadline for providing 911 service that some consider unrealistic, companies that provide voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service are dialing up lobbyists for help.

Nuvio, a VoIP provider, for example, recently signed the firm Swidler Berlin to lobby on its behalf, according to lobbying records. VoIP companies use the Internet to carry telephone calls.

As Congress begins to update the nation’s telecom laws, lobbyists have several issues to track for their clients. But one issue that has emerged is a new Federal Communications Commission rule that requires VoIP companies to provide 911 service, in some cases from remote locations, within 120 days.

Given “technological and regulatory impediments,” stated a Swidler Berlin-drafted response to the FCC rule, “Nuvio believes that this issue can not be resolved over the period of several months.”

Jeffrey Talley, Nuvio’s CEO, called the FCC rulemaking “reactionary.” He wants Congress to pass a law giving companies like his more time to overcome some of the obstacles to providing enhanced 911 service, which enables emergency operators to pinpoint where the call is coming from and to call back the number from which 911 was dialed.

Other VoIP officials describe the bill as complementary to the FCC action in that it will help them comply with the new rule.

News reports have recently detailed circumstances in which VoIP users called 911 but got an administrative desk instead of an emergency operator.

Another problem: 911 operators sometimes can’t automatically tell where an Internet-based call is coming from if the user is dialing from some remote location.

“Today’s action seeks to remedy a very serious problem — one quite literally of life or death for the millions of customers that subscribe to VoIP service as a substitute for traditional phone service,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said when the rule was announced two weeks ago.

But Talley said the FCC did not go far enough to ensure that incumbent local exchange carriers, the companies that operate local telecom networks including 911 services, provide adequate access to VoIP providers.

The 120-day deadline is “not realistic, especially when we aren’t given the tools to provide service,” Talley said.

Jim Kohlenberger, the executive director of the Voice On the Net Coalition, a group of VoIP companies, said Congress should provide VoIP companies the “tools in the toolbox” to provide 911 service. That is, lawmakers should ensure they are provided access to the 911 network, he said.

Kohlengerger called the FCC deadline “ambitious,” but added that “every one is committed to finding ways to make progress.”

A lobbyist at Vonage, which is the largest VoIP provider, said the company was not asking Congress to overturn the FCC ruling but supports the legislation in part to clarify access issues.

“We’re treating it as if it is the real thing,” the lobbyist said of the FCC rule.

Edward Merlis, a vice president at the U.S. Telecom Association, which represents local phone providers, said he wasn’t aware of any access problems. He noted that compettive local exchange carriers already have access to the 911 system.

But access issues are not a new complaint in telecom. For years, long-distance providers and incumbent local exchange carriers, including the four so-called “Baby Bells,” fought over the cost of accessing local telecom networks. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which Congress is now considering rewriting, sought to provide more providers access to local networks so that consumers could benefit from competitive market pressures.

But court decisions and mergers have largely settled this rivalry, which is now being replaced by new battles between cable and VoIP providers and traditional telecom companies.

VoIP companies favor a bill introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) that requires 911 service but does not set a deadline except to require the FCC act within 180 days of the law’s enactment.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), co-chairs of the E-911 Caucus, are co-sponsoring the bill. A Senate companion has also been introduced.
Important for VoIP providers, the bill would require they be given “non-discriminatory access at just and reasonable rates” to the 911 network maintained by local telecoms.

The 120-day countdown won’t begin until 30 days after FCC rule is published in the Federal Register. The rule is likely to be published in the next week or two.

Staffers said they have heard from VoIP companies complaining about the deadline, which two agreed were “unrealistic.”

The staffers said VoIP lobbyists were active in the drafting of the bill, as were other companies and regulators with interest in the issue.

An FCC spokesman pointed out that the ruling only applies to VoIP providers already interconnected with telephone switching networks. Some companies, such as Skype, that use only the Internet to complete calls are not required to provide 911 service.

Also, the rule acknowledges that some 911 networks aren’t equipped with the tools to pinpoint the location of VoIP users, the spokesman said.