The VoIP E911 story so far has been a lesson in the pitfalls of command-and-control regulation. While its easy to agree with the FCCs objective to ensure that all VoIP customers can make E911 calls, its harder to endorse some of the steps the FCC has taken in pursuing this goal.
The agencys table-pounding actions last year gave VoIP (define - news -alerts) companies only 120 days to provide for delivery of all 911 calls to customers local emergency operators, required VoIP companies to disconnect customers who were not receiving E911 service (the FCC later backed off that requirement), and barred VoIP providers from signing up new customers in markets where they were not complying with the FCCs requirements. The agencys tough stance, however, pointedly stopped short of requiring incumbent LECs to provide direct access to their E911 networks for all VoIP providers.
The FCCs approach could make it more difficult to achieve an important goal for emergency communications: migrating 911 systems to IP-based platforms. Burdening the industry with unreasonable deadlines and penalties that undercut the competitiveness of VoIP providers may wind up being counterproductive. Its important to keep in mind that IP technology will bring valuable enhancements to emergency communications. FCC and other government policymakers should focus on the best way to make this happen. What may be needed instead of the FCCs hard line is a more cooperative approach to help bring IP technology to emergency communications.
IP technology can deliver impressive benefits. A report issued last year by the VON Coalition and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) says that emergency calls could include transmission of valuable information, such as a callers medical records, medical status, language preference, or maps of commercial buildings. The report notes that VoIP calls could also support an array of data and video features and functions. For example, pictures from crime scenes or accidents could be provided with the 911 call, and emergency responders could give callers video instructions regarding first aid.
One way to move effectively toward an IP-based E911 system would be to rely on self-regulation by the VoIP industry, accompanied by government oversight. Three professors (Tom Lookabaugh, Patrick Ryan, and Douglas Sicker) recently made the case for this approach in an article published in the Federal Communications Law Journal. Lookabaugh and his colleagues believe that government should concentrate on encouraging industry to collaborate in a self-regulatory effort.
But how would such an approach work? Lookabaugh and his colleagues suggest that private certification of VoIP emergency services should focus on software and the characteristics of VoIP networks and systems. The authors stress that the certification process must accommodate wide variations among the networks and systems used by VoIP providers. And government oversight would be a key part of the certification mix. Lookabaugh and his colleagues argue that government influence in the form of the threat of direct regulatory intervention or in the form of shared regulatory responsibilities with private organizations would be an important ingredient in making a private certification process work.
Private certification, of course, is not a new idea. Underwriters Laboratories, an independent, non-profit product safety testing and certification organization, has been testing products for public safety for more than a century. In the telecommunications sector, Telcordia Technologies is involved in certifying telecommunications equipment, and the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization set up in 1999, has certified the interoperability of more than 2,500 telecommunications products. And eight years ago the FCC established private Telecommunications Certification Bodies (TCBs) for the purpose of certifying that equipment intended for use within the United States complies with FCC requirements.
A possible vehicle that government regulators could use to help set up and coordinate a VoIP E911 certification process is the E-911 Implementation Coordination Office. Legislation enacted in 2004 required the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create the Office. The legislation gives the Office the job of assisting states, local governments, and public safety organizations in implementing the next phase of E911 services. But the Office could also be responsible for overseeing a private certification program. And it could be given a more expansive role in developing a national plan for migrating to an IP-enabled emergency network to handle all emergency communications. In fact, H.R. 2418, introduced by Congressman Bart Gordon last year, would assign this responsibility to the Office.
The three big challenges for government are to make E911 work for all VoIP subscribers, to take advantage of IP technology for emergency communications, and to make sure that government policies dont hinder the VoIP industrys ability to continue to grow and provide competitive alternatives for consumers. The FCC should explore ways to work with organizations like the E-911 Implementation Coordination Office in setting up mechanisms to capture the benefits of IP technology for emergency communications. If the FCC moves away from command-and-control regulation, and toward a system of self-regulation along the lines described here, it could score a hat trick in meeting these three goals. IT
John Cimko served for fifteen years at the FCC, and currently practices law at Greenberg Traurig LLP. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to his firm or its clients. For additional information, visit the firms Web site at www.gtlaw.com.
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