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The trouble with 911 and VoIP

A look at the issues involved in the VoIP/911 dilemma.

You've probably seen me and other industry hacks and pundits go off on the joys of VoIP based phone service repeatedly in the past year and half. But there's still one nagging problem that prevents the FCC and many levels of local government from accepting VoIP as a "reasonable alternative" to POTS—namely, emergency response services that generally fall under the number 911.

There are several, somewhat complex issues involved, but they basically boil down to the lack of location information for calls that originate from VoIP networks. Factor in the hard truth that users can take VoIP softphones away from home (where even if primary location information were available, it wouldn't apply to a user from Omaha who's taken his softphone to Topeka and who then dials 911). Hard lines are easy to handle because they can't move (even though wireless handsets do provide some mobility, the caller's anchored to the baseplate where the base station plugs in). Cell phone providers solved this problem by making it possible to identify the cell tower whence the initial relay comes, and even with GPS location for some types of handsets.

This presents VoIP providers with an interesting problem. Beyond complying with local and federal statutes requiring 911 calls to be handled automatically, those providers want parity with other types of phone service in all possible ways, so as to be able to compete on equal footing (where they feel they can win on price, convenience, and extra features). That's what makes some recent news items about the electronic version of 911 for VoIP, which often goes by the name E911, particularly interesting:

  • On Tuesday, April 26, Verizon issued a statement that said it had found a way to route VoIP calls so that they can be handled like POTS and wireless 911 calls.
  • On another front, Qwest and SBC have been working together with Vonage to solve the 911 problem, and BellSouth is said to be doing likewise. Because the companies once known as Baby Bells control the vast majority of POTS lines (over 90% of US lines, according to some sources) their cooperation with VoIP providers presages a successful solution, even though handling mechanisms differ when compared to VoIP. In fact, Qwest has reported a successful trial of the Vonage E911 approach in Washington state, and SBC has offered to partner with Vonage as well.

The real issue is to deliver accurate, current location data as part of 911 call information so that emergency calls go to the correct dispatcher. Though it appears a solution may be at hand, the 911 problem still remains to be solved. The attorney general for the state of Texas sued Vonage in March, on grounds that Vonage misled customers about 911 emergency services.

One thing's for sure: if VoIP seeks real parity with conventional POTS and cellular phone services (and there's a tremendous amount of momentum and investment forcing technology development in this case), the 911 problem must be solved—and soon! This is an area that will be very interesting to watch.

Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, and the author of over 100 books on a wide range of computing subjects from markup languages to information security. He's also a contributing editor for Certification Magazine, and edits Que Publishing's Exam Cram 2 and Training Guide series of cert prep books. E-mail Ed at [email protected].


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