Senate passes legislation to bring 911 systems into the Internet Age

The Senate has passed a bill that would require IP telephony service providers to offer 911 services and create plans for a national IP-based emergency response network.

On June 16, senators passed H.R. 3403, the New and Emerging Technologies (NET) 911 Improvement Act of 2008. House lawmakers passed it in similar form in November 2007. The House is expected to take up a final version of the bill during the current session.

Providers of cellular phone service and voice over IP are already required to provide 911 emergency call service and Enhanced 911 service, which provides information on the location and identity of callers. VOIP phones present a challenge for many 911 systems because the service is tied to an IP address rather than a location. Mobile IP phone service adds another wrinkle to the problem because the service is not necessarily tied to a cellular system that could be used to locate the caller.

The NET 911 Improvement Act extends 911 service requirements for wireless providers to mobile IP voice service providers. It would require the Federal Communications Commission to establish regulations for giving customers access to the 911 system and ensure that service providers have access to third-party 911 technology and networks at commercial rates. It would also amend privacy requirements and authorize providers to supply customer information for 911 calls.

FCC would be prohibited from requiring specific technologies or standards for providing the required services. It would work with public safety agencies and industry to develop best practices and procedures for addressing technical issues, including:
  • Defining geographic coverage areas for public safety answering points.
  • Defining network diversity requirements for delivery of IP-enabled 911 and E911 calls.
  • Call-handling in the event of overflows or network outages.
  • Requirements for public safety answering point certification and testing.
  • Validation procedures for entering and updating location information in relevant databases.
  • The format for delivering address information to public safety answering points.

The bill would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide Congress with a plan for migrating to a national IP-enabled emergency network capable of receiving and responding to all citizen-activated emergency communications. Most public safety answering points that receive 911 calls are not equipped to receive other types of IP communications, such as e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging. Those types of communications are becoming increasingly common, and during emergencies, when communications systems can be overwhelmed, they are often more reliable than voice services.

The plan would identify barriers to implementing such a system, identify location technology for nomadic devices and include a timetable with costs for implementing the plan.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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