SPRINGFIELD –Governor Blagojevich today announced new legislation that would mandate Internet based phone providers or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers to offer 911 emergency services to their customers by September 2005 or face steep fines. VoIP providers offer consumers the ability to make and receive phone calls over the Internet using a broadband connection, but are not subject to the same requirements as telephone service providers.
“In crisis situations, immediate access to 911 services can mean the difference between life and death. This law will ensure that everyone has access to emergency services, no matter what technology they use to make calls,” said Governor Blagojevich.
Governor Blagojevich ordered his staff to draft the legislation after learning of a tragic incident on February 3 in Houston, Texas, where two intruders broke into the home of Joyce John, a 17-year-old girl, and shot her parents. Joyce tried to call 911, but instead of being able to talk to the police, she got a recording from the Internet phone provider her family had recently began using, telling her that access to 911 was unavailable.
She escaped from the assailants and ran to a neighbor’s house from which she was finally able to call police and request an ambulance. More than 10 minutes had passed, Joyce’s parents were both bleeding from gunshot wounds, and the intruders escaped and remain at large.
U.S. Internet phone providers cannot route 911 calls to emergency centers, or provide emergency operators within the caller’s location because traditional phone companies have not given them access to the 911 network that links more than 3,200 emergency centers across the nation. As a result, Internet phone providers route 911 calls to administrative lines at call centers, instead of directing them to emergency operators. Several seconds can lapse before a rerouted call is picked up by the emergency center, which can be the difference between responding promptly to a call, or too late. Even if emergency operators pick up a call, since it was made over the Internet it is not possible to obtain a fixed address for police or an ambulance to respond to.
The Houston incident prompted Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to sue one Internet phone provider, while the Canadian government has ordered VoIP to establish reliable 911 services access within 90 days, or face shutdowns.
The growing popularity of Internet phone services makes passing of this bill an urgent matter. The number of Internet phone subscribers in the nation will reach three million by the end of the year, and could grow to over 27 million by 2009, according to industry estimates.
Senate Bill 238 calls on VoIP providers to offer 911 services by September 1, 2005 or seek a one-year extension from the Illinois Commerce Commission. To receive an extension, the provider will have to prove that enacting the emergency calls service is either technologically infeasible or unduly economically burdensome. If a provider is granted an extension, then they must obtain a signed acknowledgement from each customer stating that they understand that standard 911 services are not provided.
Violations of the act will be considered violations of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act, which is enforced by the Attorney General’s office and can carry fines between one and five thousand dollars.
An amendment to the bill will be filed on Monday. SB238 is currently on third reading in the Senate. Senator James F. Clayborne Jr. (D-East St. Louis) is the legislation’s sponsor.