Telecom-reform legislation approved by the House Commerce Committee includes provisions that would alter existing FCC rules regarding the manner in which voice-over-IP companies provide 911 services.

The National Emergency Number Agency (NENA) generally supports the bill, which would make it easier for VoIP providers to provide voice competition to incumbent telephone carriers, said Patrick Halley, NENA's government affairs director.

Under the bill, a VoIP provider could market and gain new customers in areas where it did not have a 911 solution — something the FCC rules issued a year ago prohibit — if it used a national call center to route calls. However, the bill would require the VoIP provider to order connectivity to a selective router within 30 days of gaining its first new customer and provide direct E911 service within 180 days to continue taking new subscribers in a given area, Halley said.

Opposing the provision is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), which does not believe VoIP providers should be able to market service without connecting directly into the 911 network, said Robert Gurss, APCO's director of legal and government affairs.

“We don't think call centers are an adequate substitute … because you're adding delay and potential for human error into that process,” he said.

Gurss also said APCO is concerned with a provision in the bill that would prohibit the FCC from requiring VoIP providers to meet 911 mandates that are not “technically and operationally feasible.”

“The term ‘operationally feasible’ is kind of a loose requirement because there are a lot of things a business entity could claim are not operationally feasible,” Gurss said. “Our position is that a VoIP provider should not offer new service in an area where it cannot directly deliver 911 calls to the right PSAP.”

Halley said NENA does not interpret the provision as effectively requiring the FCC to waive its May 2005 rules but said NENA “would have a problem with that” if the language in the bill were interpreted in that manner.

NENA's support of the House bill is contingent on an amendment being added that would give VoIP providers and PSAPs the same liability protection available to wireline and wireless carriers providing 911 service, Halley said.

“Right now, there is no liability protection, so some PSAPs are unwilling to accept voice-over-IP 911 calls without that protection,” he said.

Halley expects such a liability amendment to be introduced when the bill reaches the House floor for a vote.