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 (VoIP) companies provide 911 services.

The National Emergency Number Agency (NENA) generally supports the House 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 House 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 E-911 service within 180 days to continue getting new subscribers in a given area, Halley said.

“It doesn’t let them out of their responsibilities at all,” he said. “It just changes the timeline in those areas.”

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 the call centers are an adequate substitute … because you’re adding delay to that process and potential for human error into that process,” he said. “The call gets answered, but it gets answered by a person in some central location, and you’re depending on that person telling what jurisdiction you’re in and then routing that call to the proper PSAP.

“It multiplies many times the potential for the call to not get through in any kind of a useful matter.”

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. If it’s not technically or operationally feasible to do that, then they shouldn’t offer the service.

“Our view is that, one or another, [VoIP providers have] got to overcome those things and provide the service. The fact that there are impediments in the way—even if they are out of your control—that’s too bad. We’re talking about public safety here”

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 support of the House bill is contingent on an amendment being added that would give VoIP providers and PSAPs the same liability protection that is 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. “The technology is new and the E-911 solutions are new, so there’s increased chances of problems occurring during the routing of the 911 calls.” Such a liability amendment is expected to be introduced when the bill reaches the House floor for a vote, Halley said. Before the legislation can reach that point, parliamentarians are trying to determine whether the bill must be referred to the House Judiciary Committee.