WIRELESS 911 BILL HITS LIABILITY, PRIVACY OBSTACLES

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WASHINGTON-The wireless 911 bill, once assumed a sure bet for congressional approval this year, has hit snags over liability, privacy and other issues that threaten passage of the legislation in 1999.

Failure to pass the 911 bill-the centerpiece of the wireless industry’s lobbying campaign in 1999-would be a serious setback for carriers and 911 vendors that want immunity from lawsuits before rolling out advanced emergency systems that provide caller identification and position location.

Holding the bill over until 2000 could prove highly problematic for industry, given it is an election year. Moreover, a delay would buy time for consumer groups and others that are beginning to surface and speak out on wireless liability issues pending before Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and state courts.

In addition to liability protection for 911 and non-911 wireless calls, the legislation makes 911 the universal wireless emergency telephone number.

Such broad liability immunity for wireless carriers has caused an uproar from consumer advocates who claim 911 legislation is part a master plan by industry to secure shielding from virtually all lawsuits.

In some state courts, consumers have brought litigation against wireless firms for being charged for rounded up and dropped calls, fraudulent advertising and other carrier practices.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), to the chagrin of the wireless industry, want to take a good, hard look at the 911 bill passed by the Senate in August and compare it with the House 911 bill before moving forward.

“We have to walk through the provisions on liability,” said Colin Crowell, an aide to Markey, ranking minority member of the House telecommunications subcommittee.

Markey, who has been lobbied by industry and consumer advocates in recent weeks, has directed a series of questions on liability and privacy to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Crowell noted that while the 911 bill is important there is other pressing legislation facing Markey and other telecom lawmakers.

The wireless industry prefers the Senate bill, which gives wireless carriers immediate liability protection equal to that accorded to wireline telcos in given areas. As such, the industry wants the House to embrace the Senate version over its own, instead of having the two houses reconcile the two bills in conference.

Indeed, on the Aug. 5 evening that the Senate approved its 911 bill, the wireless industry hustled over to the other side of Capitol Hill to urge key House members to pass the Senate bill. The strategy failed.

The House bill-owing to prodding by Markey-gives states two years to enact their own standards for wireless liability.

“We don’t want a conference report,” said Steven Berry, senior vice president for congressional affairs at CTIA. “We are going to pass the Senate bill in the House and send it to the president,” Berry predicted. “This bill saves lives.”

Berry insists the Senate bill is superior to the House’s because the former is less threatening to state law.

But aggressive lobbying by CTIA and its members appears to have backfired and produced a backlash in the House.

Bliley and his staff, according to sources, resent being pressured by industry to adopt the other chamber’s 911 bill. In addition, they are angered at being portrayed as dragging their feet on a public-safety bill.

“E911 has always been a priority for the chairman,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the House Commerce Committee.

Industry lobbyists say Bliley’s desire to closely study the Senate 911 bill has little to do with the legislation itself. They suggest there is bad blood between Bliley’s staff and Sen. Conrad Burns’ (R-Mont.) staff over international satellite legislation. Going slow on the Senate 911 bill is Bliley’s way of retaliating against Burns, lobbyists theorize.

Burns, chairman of the Senate communications subcommittee, is lead sponsor of the Senate 911 bill. He, like Bliley, is working on a bill to privatize the International Maritime Satellite Organization and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization.

The gridlock in which 911 legislation now finds itself highlights the sometimes strained relations between Bliley and House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

In this case, Tauzin and Bliley so far are taking different approaches to 911 legislation.

“We’re ready to pass Senate bill,” said Ken Johnson, Tauzin’s press secretary. Johnson conceded Markey “has got some problems with liability.”

The Wireless Consumers Alliance, headed by Carl Hilliard, has been lobbying Congress and FCC, which has been asked by WCA to declare that states should not be pre-empted from awarding monetary damages against wireless carriers.

Congress in 1993 pre-empted states from entry and rate regulation of commercial wireless carriers. The wireless industry argues monetary relief by state courts would require carriers to raise rates, which would be tantamount to illegal rate regulation.

WCA’s FCC petition has attracted support from Public Citizen and Texas regulators, and there is a possibility the Consumers Union may soon we weigh in on the matter.

“The alliance certainly supports universal 911 and privacy protections, but the limited liability provision in the bill-together with an adverse ruling from the FCC on the preemption issues-would likely result in total immunity for the industry and undermine the development of a fair competitive market,” said Patrick Daniels, counsel to WCA.

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