Senate panel tinkers with Sununu VoIP measure

The Sununu bill is an attempt to prevent conflicting state regulations
from slowing introduction of the technology

The Senate Commerce Committee has added some confusion to the effort to bar states from regulating Voice over Internet Protocol service for three years.

The committee has sent to the Senate floor a bill that would bar states from regulating VoIP service for three years. Introduced by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., the bill — known as “The VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004” — is an attempt to prevent disparate state regulations from slowing the rollout of VoIP just as major providers like Verizon Communications and AT&T are entering the market.

But just as the committee rolled back state powers, it restored some of them.

One amendment, introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., exempts from the three-year moratorium state rules that can require VoIP providers to pay state “universal service” funds that subsidize phone service in rural areas.

Dorgan’s amendment also exempts from the moratorium state rules that could require VoIP providers to pay “access charges” assessed by local telephone companies for the use of their networks.

The committee also passed an amendment by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., that would require VoIP providers to provide emergency 911 service. Critics of that amendment pointed out that there’s no federal 911 mandate on traditional phone providers now, although many states impose the obligation.

Sununu apparently wasn’t pleased by the provisions, telling Dow Jones Newswires, “This in effect guts the bill by turning back to state commissions all the powers they have over traditional phone service. This takes us 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”

Dorgan said his amendment simply reserves the rights states already have to impose the charges. “It doesn’t gut the bill,” he said.

The committee approved the Dorgan amendment by a 12-10 vote, despite opposition from committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who would be chairman of the committee if Democrats take control of the Senate, voted for the Dorgan amendment.

The bill is given scant odds of passage into law this session, but it is expected to be a subject of debate next year.

In the end, Sununu called the passage “an important step forward, and a small victory in the effort to establish a clear and limited regulatory framework for IP services like VoIP. Despite the addition of two amendments, the basic message is clear: Congress does not want states implementing new regulations that will inhibit this emerging technology.”

The senator said he “will continue to work .. to complete similar VoIP legislation in the House and pursue final passage of a bill this year.”

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