New law brings 911 services into Internet Age

FCC issues rules implementing 911 requirements for wireless VOIP

The Federal Communications Commission issued regulations this week for voice-over-IP service providers to offer Enhanced 911 emergency call services to all customers. The rules were required under the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008, which was signed into law in July.

'The NET 911 Act explicitly imposes on each interconnected VOIP provider the obligation to provide 911 and E911 service in accordance with [FCC's] existing requirements,' the FCC order states. 'The NET 911 Act also grants each interconnected VOIP provider rights with respect to capabilities to provide 911 and E911 services.'

The law does not define the capabilities, and FCC officials chose not to specify capabilities that could be used to help locate where an emergency call is coming from. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin disagreed with that omission and issued a statement citing his concerns.

'I am troubled that today's decision could leave mobile VOIP customers without adequate 911 service when they roam outside their service providers' footprint,' Martin wrote. 'In these instances, the service providers do not have access to 'last-known cell' information that they may need to deliver the call to the appropriate local emergency operator and to provide accurate location information to the appropriate public safety officials.'

Last-known cell information allows a carrier to access data about the location of the most recent call placed outside the provider's service area. That ability could help provide location information for 911 calls. Other commissioners disagreed with Martin's assessment.

'This order faithfully reflects the plain language and intent of the NET 911 Act and will further the abilities of our nation's emergency response providers for the benefit of all Americans,' commissioner Robert McDowell wrote.

Commissioner Michael Copps said it is too early to settle on last-known cell as a required technology.

'I think it is important we do not codify a 'last-known cell' approach before the public safety community and the FCC have looked at the full range of options for automatically identifying the location of mobile VOIP calls,' he wrote in his statement. 'As I have stated before, I wish we had addressed this question long ago, before mobile VOIP became a marketplace reality. And I certainly look forward to addressing it as soon as possible. But there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed.'

Cellular phone and VOIP service providers are already required to offer 911 and E911 call services, which include information on the location and identity of callers. VOIP phones provide 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 it is not tied to a specific location or cellular system that could be used to locate the caller.

The NET 911 Act extends existing 911 service requirements for wireless providers to mobile IP voice service providers. It required FCC to establish regulations for giving customers access to the 911 system and ensure that service providers can use third-party 911 technology and networks at commercial rates. It also amended privacy requirements and authorized providers to supply customer information such as last-known cell for 911 calls.

The act states that it is 'the duty of each IP-enabled voice service provider to provide 911 service and Enhanced 911 service to its subscribers in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Communications Commission.'

But complying with that mandate could require access to services outside the VOIP provider's network.

'E911 service expands basic 911 service by not only delivering 911 calls to an appropriate public safety answering point, but also providing the caller's callback number and location information ' a capability referred to as Automatic Location Identification,' the FCC rules state. '911 calls and E911 service are processed and delivered over a dedicated network architecture that is separate from but interconnected' with the public switched telephone network.

To meet the requirements of the law, VOIP providers 'have a right of access to such capabilities, including interconnection, to provide 911 and Enhanced 911 service on the same rates, terms and conditions that are provided to a provider of commercial mobile service,' the rules state.

The majority of commissioners agreed that requiring access to specific technologies such as last-known call data is premature and outside the scope of the law.

'We decline to issue highly detailed rules listing capabilities or entities with ownership or control of those capabilities,' they wrote in the order. 'The nation's 911 system varies from locality to locality, and overly specific rules would fail to reflect these local variations. Furthermore, as Congress recognized, the nation's 911 system is evolving from its origins in the circuit-switched world into an IP-based network. Our rules should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate this ongoing process. Indeed, Congress specifically prohibited the commission from 'issuing regulations that require or impose a specific technology or technological standard,' which specific, invariable rules could do.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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