Corrected: Wending its way through the House of Representatives is a bill to try and bring VoIP services into an emergency calling regime that has largely ignored the IP-based infrastructure.
The 911 Modernization and Public Safety Act (H.R. 3403), introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., in August*, would ensure that VoIP providers have access to the components of the 911 infrastructure they need to process emergency calls, and it would give them the same liability protection that wireless carriers have.
"If a 911 call fails in an emergency ... a consumer won't stand for long-winded explanations on the fine points of interconnection rules, or the implications of liability protection, when they ask why the call didn't go through," said Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey of Massachusetts who said he hopes to advance the legislation quickly in the coming weeks.
Public safety agencies are eager to upgrade the 911 phone system to keep pace with IP-enabled services and provide first responders with new tools, such as text messaging and video transmission.
"It's sad that in today's environment teenagers can take pictures of crimes in progress, but they cannot transmit them to the first responders," Jason Barbour, 911 Director for Johnston County, N.C., told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Barbour, who is also president of the National Emergency Number Association, added that 911 systems will migrate to an IP-based infrastructure over the next three to five years.
However, the telephone companies, one of the more powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill, are fighting for some changes to the bill. They are concerned that it gives VoIP providers more access to 911 infrastructure than wireless carriers have and therefore an unfair advantage, said Robert Mayer, vice president of Industry and State Affairs at the United States Telecom Association.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said that the cost of upgrading the infrastructure is what's really at stake.
"At the end of the day, we know that these fights are about money," she said. How infrastructure owners, namely the incumbent phone companies, are compensated for the upgrades and under what terms and conditions different service providers access the system is driving the debate.
Calling the cost question "the elephant in the room," Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., asked USTA's Meyer how VoIP providers should be charged for access.
"There's a lot of unknowns about the technology, but one thing we know is that the next 911 system has to be very different," Meyer said, adding that he is concerned that the phone companies will not be allowed to recover their investment.
The phone companies also want to modify a provision in the bill restricting the use of 911-related data. At the other end of the debate, Craig Donaldson, senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs at Intrado, said safeguards are needed to prevent disclosure of 911 data, because if the FCC is given the discretion to release it to the public, it could be used to sabotage the system.
Along with the planned migration to IP are complexities that are spurring additional concerns about the emergency system's own safety. The answering systems could be flooded with phantom calls, blocking emergency requests or shutting down altogether.
"Operational and security risks are likely to increase dramatically," Donaldson said. To mitigate risks, state regulators must maintain their role in overseeing the systems, rather than transferring more of that responsibility to the Federal Communications Commission, he added.
Also testifying at the hearing, representatives from Comcast and Earthlink said they support the bill.
*Corrects date the bill was introduced in the House.