On Oct. 21, the FCC issued new rules aimed at boosting the ability of voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers to offer enhanced 911 service, known as E911. The new regulations mandate that E911 capabilities be made available to interconnected VoIP providers (those using the Public Switched Telephone Network), just as they are to wireless carriers. Since 2005, the FCC has required interconnected VoIP service providers to offer E911 services comparable to those of wireline and wireless providers, but without the benefit of any statutory or regulatory requirement that would assure VoIP service providers of comparable access to the E911 system.

The new FCC order comes three months after Congress's passage of the NET 911 Improvement Act of 2008 ("NET 911 Act") and implements the statute’s goal of fostering the rapid deployment of interconnected VoIP 911 and E911 services. There are two levels of 911 service, "basic" and "enhanced." "Basic" service delivers 911 calls to an appropriate public safety answering point or agency without the caller's location information, or, in some cases, a call back number. Enhanced, or E911, service expands basic 911, not only delivering 911 calls to the appropriate public safety answering point, but also providing the public safety answering point with the caller's call-back number, or ANI, and location information, or ALI.

Under the new FCC order, interconnected VoIP providers are granted new rights of access to 911 capabilities at (1) the same "rates, terms and conditions" that are provided to wireless carriers, whether or not the capabilities are used by wireless carriers, or (2) at other reasonable rates, terms and conditions that are made available to any telecommunications carrier or other entity for the provision of 911 or E911 service. At the same time, the order affirms that interconnected VoIP providers have obligations to provide basic 911 and E911 services as required under FCC rules. The 911 capabilities to which the FCC order specifically requires VoIP provider access include, among others: a selective router; trunk lines between the router and the public safety answering points; the ALI database; the SR database; the database management system; the master street address guide; to pseudo-ANIs or p-ANIs; and to data circuits to connect these elements and other capabilities; all of which are typically built and maintained by incumbent local exchange carriers as part of the Wireline E911 Network. "Any entity" that owns or controls such capabilities must comply, and provide "ready access" to interconnected VoIP providers at rates, terms and conditions it offers those capabilities to other entities, or, if not, must negotiate rates which are "reasonable" and arrived at through commercial negotiation.

Furthermore, the FCC order requires interconnected VoIP providers to comply with "all applicable industry network security standards to the same extent as traditional telecommunications carriers" (including NENA's i2 standard) to prevent unauthorized electronic access or hacking. Though many interconnected VoIP providers have been able to deploy E911 services in most of their service areas since the 2005 VoIP 911 Order, some VoIP providers have reported cases in which their deployment of VoIP services has been delayed or frustrated because of their inability to obtain access to E-911 capabilities at reasonable terms. For example, a leading national VoIP provider reported in this rulemaking that it provides a full suite of E911 services to 98.45% of its customers. This order is intended to help interconnected VoIP providers close any remaining E911 gaps in their networks to meet FCC E911 requirements.

One issue the Commissioners were unable to agree on in the Oct. 21 order was whether to mandate a “last known cell” site location information requirement for mobile VoIP phones that operate on dual mode WiFi/GSM networks, which would have required the wireless subscriber’s carrier to have agreements with each of its roaming partners to provide the last known cell site on which the roaming subscriber has connected. A majority of Commissioners felt that the pros and cons of a particular technology solution for mobile VoIP autolocation should be decided in a rulemaking in which all interested parties can comment, rather than in the expedited context of implementation of the NET 911 Act.