FCC requires VoIP providers to have 911 service

Friday, May 20, 2005

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said May 19 that it will require VoIP providers to route 911 calls to the appropriate local dispatch center. Under this new regulation the dispatch center is also required to be provided with the caller's callback number and location.

With the exception of Rhode Island, most VoIP's 911 callers are delivered to the administrative offices of a public-safety answering point, instead of connecting directly to a standard 911 dispatcher. The resulting time delay was a consequence of the phone provider's refusal to give VoIP providers access to the 911 infrastructure. To comply with this new regulation the VoIP providers need the cooperation of the traditional phone providers. The FCC has not required the traditional phone providers to assist the VoIP providers with this, but a bill introduced in the House and Senate Wednesday would require them to provide the connection.

"The road to full compliance will not be easy, and the commission will almost certainly be called on to take further steps to bring it about, but we have begun the process," Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said.

This new regulation comes after the death of a 3-month-old in Florida, partially due to delays in routing the call that was placed over a VoIP service.

"While they seem functionally the same, many [VoIP] callers find that they can't reach local emergency operators," said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. "This situation is unacceptable. People have a reasonable expectation that when they dial 911, they are connected to the emergency operator."

This new regulation is expected to become final in 30 to 45 days. When it does, the companies will have 120 days to comply.

Cell phone makers have been required to install GPS chips in all phones. The chip is used the share the position of the phone to the nearest transmission tower in the event of an emergency. Newer cell phone models no longer have the option of turning off the location information sharing feature for emergencies. Location sharing for other services, such as a service that might report the nearest restaurant serving corned beef sandwiches when queried could be disabled, if that were the user's preference.

The effects of 911 location sharing on law enforcement remains to be seen. Fugitives might leave their cell phones turned on. An arrest on I-95 occurred earlier this year near Richmond, VA, when a Florida fugitive was captured by accessing the cell phone location.