A bill to require Internet-phone providers such as Vonage Holdings Corp. to connect emergency calls to local 911 dispatchers passed the Senate Commerce Committee today and now goes to the full Senate.
The bill would affect voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) providers including Cablevision Systems Corp., Vonage and Time Warner Inc.'s cable unit. More than 27 million people in the United States will make Internet calls by 2009, compared with 3.1 million this year, according to technology researcher IDC.
The legislation, which would buttress a new Federal Communications Commission rule, comes after a Houston couple was shot by intruders while their daughter tried unsuccessfully to reach dispatchers on an Internet phone line. The FCC requirement, imposed by Chairman Kevin J. Martin, goes into effect Nov. 28.
Yesterday, an Internet telephone service provider asked a federal appeals court to delay enforcement of the new FCC rule. The motion was filed by Overland Park, Kan.-based Nuvio Corp. as part of a lawsuit challenging the 911 requirement. Nuvio is joined in the lawsuit, which was filed in August, by three other VOIP providers: Lightyear Network Solutions LLC; Lingo Inc., a subsidiary of McLean-based Primus Telecommunications Group Inc.; and Atlanta-based i2 Telecom International Inc.
The Senate bill goes beyond the FCC order by requiring the so-called Baby Bells, including Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., to open their networks to VOIP providers. Without access to these local systems, Internet phone calls would not go through to dispatchers. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.
The Senate bill "gives us the tools we need to meet the mandate of providing e911 to all our customers," Vonage lobbyist Chris Murray said today.
The legislation also would exempt VOIP providers and local dispatchers from liability under state laws unless they are grossly negligent. This exemption, which seeks to protect companies from accidents beyond their control, also typically covers telephone and cell phone companies in federal law.
"Industry needs this protection to bring new and innovative services to all consumers," said Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Finally, the bill would require the Department of Commerce to convert the 911 system to digital technology so that calls would go to a backup dispatcher if the local dispatcher isn't reached. About 30 emergency call centers in Louisiana and Mississippi collapsed during Hurricane Katrina in August, leaving 911 calls unanswered.
The legislation was sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).