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Bill Grants VoIP Providers Full 911 Access

The New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act also calls for a national IP-enabled emergency network.

The U.S. Senate this week passed legislation that requires 911 network operators to allow VoIP callers to connect, no matter what service they're calling from.

The New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act passed by unanimous consent Monday. It's meant to ensure that traditional telecoms, which operate the emergency networks, connect VoIP providers with the same rates and conditions they use when connecting mobile phones.

"When consumers dial 911 for emergency service, they should do so with confidence that their calls for help will be answered without regard to who provides their phone service or what technology they employ," The National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a letter supporting the bill.

VoIP calls can present a problem to 911 systems because it's tied to an IP address instead of a location. Because of this, the FCC mandated in 2005 that VoIP service providers offer information on the location and identity of the caller through enhanced 911.

VoIP providers say about 97% of customers have this E911, but there have been some reports that traditional telecoms, which control 911 networks, have intentionally blocked VoIP access to emergency networks.

The legislation would put an end to that, as well as provide emergency dispatch centers with some legal liability if VoIP 911 calls fail.

The bill, H.R. 3403, would also require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide a plan for a national IP-enabled emergency network for citizen-activated emergencies.

As communication technology advances, the 40-year-old 911 emergency system is going to need to keep pace.

"The problem is that consumer technology has surpassed 911 technology," said Jeff Robertson, executive director of the 911 Industry Alliance.

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