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VoIP telephony took another step into the mainstream when the U.S. Senate passed a bill earlier this month requiring all current and future IP-enabled telephony services to offer 911 and E911 calling.
The IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act (S.428) will vest the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the authority to mandate that all VoIP providers offer 911/E911 services to their subscribers, including new communication services as they become available.
E911 refers to the ability of a communication service to automatically send location information to emergency call centers during a 911 call.
In 2005, the FCC mandated that VoIP providers who are positioned as landline replacements — such as Vonage or 8x8 but not Skype — offer 911 and E911 service to their subscribers. The new bill gives the FCC the authority to make similar demands of new IP communication services as they become available without returning to Congress for permission.
The bill issue also gives VoIP providers access to 911 network components typically operated by Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) at the same rates, terms and conditions that the ILECs currently offer to mobile operators.
The Senate bill also allows states to collect 911/E911 taxes from VoIP providers and calls for "parity in liability" between VoIP providers and ILECs when it comes to 911/E911-related lawsuits.
"We are very pleased to see a VoIP E911 bill emerge from the Senate (S.428) that contains the same 911 liability protections to interconnected VoIP providers that wireline and cellular providers have enjoyed for some time," said 8x8 CEO Bryan Martin in a statement following the news. "Packet8 routes more than 15,000 E911 calls over its network each year and, while we have never been faced with a plaintiff lawsuit regarding the handling or outcome of an emergency call, the very nature of these calls means that, as we form a vital link in the nation's emergency communications infrastructure and technologies in the future, it is only proper that companies like ours be indemnified by law for fulfilling these emergence calling needs."
A Vonage E911 spokesperson was not available for comment at press time, but the company said that 98 percent of its subscribers are currently E911-enabled.
The IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act moves to the House of Representatives where it must be reconciled with a similar IP communications bill.
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