VOIP in Public-Safety Showdown

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By Michael Grebb

WASHINGTON -- Internet phone providers are facing static over alleged public-safety failings, with federal regulators poised to unveil new rules that could drive up prices and crimp growth.

VOIP providers insist they are not against providing 911 support, but they have balked at requirements that might increase their costs and give rival Bell operating companies a choke point to slow or prevent their entry into themarket.

Rich Tehrani, chairman of the Internet Telephony Conference, said that the VOIP industry generally supports the concept of offering 911 capabilities but has urged extreme caution.

"I support any initiative that may save lives and keep human beings safe," Tehrani said. "On the other hand, I am concerned that regulation may make it difficult to provide inexpensive VOIP service."

Tehrani said the industry is pretty much holding its breath in anticipation of Thursday's action.

"Depending on how drastic the FCC rules are, it may be impossible to comply in the short term," he said. "Some providers may not be able to afford to comply."

Vonage spokesman Chris Murray said much will hinge on the incumbent local exchange carriers, or LECs, that control access to the 911 switching centers -- known as public-safety answering points, or PSAPs.

According to Murray, incumbent LECs have been reluctant to provide PSAP access to VOIP providers voluntarily. Lack of access to PSAPs contributed to the Texas incident and similar cases of people not being able to reach 911 operators, he said. "If we had had that access, we wouldn't have had these incidents," he said.

Some consumer advocates, who generally support 911 capabilities for VOIP, have also urged the FCC to link any VOIP 911 requirement to rules that force the incumbent telcos to cooperate.

"We don't want to see a requirement on VOIP providers to do 911 but not require it to be implemented quickly by requiring the (local phone monopolies) to work with them," said Janee Briesemeister, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union.

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