FCC commissioners yesterday issued new 911 rules requiring that voice-over-IP (VoIP) service providers have access to the 911 system and that their customers are able to make emergency calls that are routed directly to a public-safety answering point (PSAP).

Yesterday’s order fulfills the FCC’s statutory requirement to pass such rules under the New and Emerging Technologies (NET) 911 Act enacted earlier this year. That law was passed to ensure that all voice-communications providers would have access to the 911 system and override some state and local regulations that were creating uncertainty regarding VoIP providers’ rights to access 911 systems.

“Everyone who dials 911 expects that he or she will be connected to the local emergency operator,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement. “This reasonable expectation exists whether that person is dialing 911 from a traditional wireline phone, a wireless phone, or a VoIP phone.”

Many industry observers believe the order will have minimal impact, because VoIP providers have managed to overcome the access issues in most cases. In fact, Vonage—the largest VoIP provider in the United States—has told the FCC that more than 98% of its customers already have access to a full suite of 911 services.

From a public-safety perspective, the biggest issue regarding VoIP providers has been trying to determine the location of callers who use the service in mobile or nomadic environments. In his statement, Martin said he is “troubled” that the order does not mandate that VoIP providers have access to “last known cell” information, so calls can be directed to the appropriate PSAP.

In his statement, Commissioner Michael Copps said including a “last known cell” requirement in the rules would have limited the technology options VoIP providers could use to establish a caller’s location automatically. Copps said he believes the commission should have addressed the matter “long ago, before mobile VoIP became a reality” by establishing a group to review various location technologies and expressed hope that the FCC would take such action soon.

Martin said he is “confused” by such a position, calling it inconsistent.

“That is not advocating a right way or a wrong way—but trying to have it both ways,” Martin said.

Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials , said APCO is pleased that the FCC passed rules implementing the NET 911 Act but the organization would like the commission to address the VoIP location issue.

“We hope that the FCC will proceed to address additional issues related to mobile VoIP services as soon as possible,” Gurss said during an interview with Urgent Communications.