FCC wants Enhanced 911 service for VOIP calls

The Federal Communications Commission has initiated the rulemaking process for giving IP voice service providers access to caller location information for emergency phone calls.

The new rules are required under the New and Emerging Technologies (NET) 911 Improvement Act of 2008. It requires that voice-over-IP service providers be given access to services and information needed for providing Enhanced 911 services 'on the same rates, terms and conditions that are provided to a provider of commercial mobile service.'

As the country's public safety infrastructure moves to new technologies, questions have arisen over whether state and local responders who answer emergency phone calls and dispatch services will have information on who is making calls and where they are originating. Congress and FCC have resolved the issue with regard to cellular phone services and are now addressing VOIP services.

'The commission must, no later than Oct. 21, 2008, issue regulations implementing certain key provisions that, among other things, ensure that providers of IP-enabled voice services have access to the capabilities they need to provide 911 and E911 service,' according to the FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking, issued this week. 'We fully intend to have those regulations in place by Congress' deadline. Therefore, we issue this notice and provide a short comment cycle that will allow us to meet our statutory obligation.'

Comments are due within 12 days of the notice's publication in the Federal Register. Information for submitting comments is included in the notice.

FCC established E911 rules for VOIP services three years ago, but did not require that service providers have access to the routing information needed for the services, an issue addressed in the new law.

The NET 911 Improvement Act is in part a recognition that the country's communications infrastructure is moving from a predominantly circuit-switched environment to a packet-switched IP environment. That transition is complicated by the variety of media used to access communications services. Not only has VOIP been thrown into the mix of wireline and cellular phones, but some phones now use a combination of cellular and wireless IP technology via Wi-Fi connections.

The law addresses how voice service carriers are to comply with requirements that they provide location data for 911 calls to public safety answering points. That is a relatively straightforward process for fixed phones on traditional public switched telephone networks. Cellular phones use different technologies to locate calls, and IP calls use yet another set.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many carriers partner with one another to initiate calls on a roaming basis when the caller is outside his home area, and many calls are carried on a variety of networks via a variety of media using a variety of protocols.

The apparently simple requirement that VOIP providers have access to the capabilities needed to provide E911 data is not so simple to implement, and FCC officials are seeking comments on how to define capabilities and the applicable rates and terms. They also want input on roaming agreements between wireless Commercial Mobile Radio Service (CMRS) carriers, an issue not typically thought of as related to VOIP E911 services.

'The issue is being raised here because it appears that, in certain situations, wireless providers offering dual-mode VOIP/CMRS handsets use the 'last known cell' as part of their routing protocol for mobile VOIP calls,' FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said. 'It is not entirely clear at this point whether CMRS providers can obtain this information when their customers are roaming on another CMRS network. Accordingly, we ask whether the commission should require host roaming networks to provide this information to their roaming partners.'

Other issues being considered include the security of information that must be shared between networks and service providers.

'What network security issues do providers of IP-enabled voice services pose for the 911 and E911 networks?' the notice asks. 'What steps can the commission take to correct or ameliorate these concerns? With respect to information privacy, are there any issues specific to IP-enabled voice service providers that raise new concerns regarding the protection of customer proprietary network information? What steps should the commission take to ensure IP-enabled voice service providers' customers' information is protected during and after a 911 or E911 call?'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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