Net Phone Zone: The 411 on 911

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I hope I never have to dial 911. I hope you never have to, either.

However, in emergency situations, you'd like to know that the first phone you grab--no matter where you are--allows you to dial 911 without any problems.

In the case of a traditional landline phone, in which the phone number is tied to a physical location, you're hooked up to the national 911 network. When you dial 911, your call is automatically routed to emergency response personnel at your local PSAP (Public Service Answering Point or Public Safety Answering Point). In most areas of the country (exceptions include remote parts of Alaska), the dispatcher who picks up your call also sees your phone number and street address pop up on screen. This "location technology" is known as Enhanced 911 or E911.

When it comes to Voice-over-IP phone services, though, it's a very different (and scary) story. For one thing, your VoIP phone number does not have to correlate with the area where you live. As long as the area code is available, Jane Doe in San Francisco, for instance, can sign up for a Miami Beach-based area code. These so-called nomadic or out-of-region phone numbers can wreak havoc with the 911 system; the last thing you'd want is for your emergency call in California to get routed to the east coast. Also, 911 dialing on a VoIP service is not usually set up by default. To make it happen, you need to register your street address with your VoIP provider. This involves filling out a form on the company's site.

Right now, if you dial 911 using a service such as Primus Telecommunications' Lingo, which doesn't offer E911, you're tapping into a workaround for emergency service: Your call goes to an administrative telephone line at the PSAP in your area, which is more like a switchboard of sorts. The operator or receptionist who picks up your call may or may not be a trained emergency agent; this operator cannot see your street address, and may not even see your number, so you have to relay this information verbally--wasting precious, precious time. (Let's not even think about an emergency situation in which you can't speak.) Based on the information you provide, the operator then handles the dispatch portion by contacting the appropriate public service agency, such as the fire department, the police, and so on. After normal business hours, the situation can be even more troubling: Depending on where you live, your 911 call may end up at the switchboard or an answering machine at your local sheriff's office. And you know the drill: "Thank you for calling. Our offices are now closed. If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911."

With Verizon's VoiceWing plan, for example, which offers limited 911 access, the company clearly states that in some areas of the country, your 911 call may simply not go through.

Of the ten VoIP companies I looked at--most of them offering nationwide service--only America Online and 8x8 offer E911 service--meaning that when subscribers dial 911, their phone number and physical address appear on the screen of the operator answering the call. AOL offers E911 for free, but 8x8 charges you for the privilege: $10 to activate E911 service and a $1.50 monthly fee. With AT&T's CallVantage VoIP service, you might get E911 at no charge, but this depends on where you live; otherwise, you will have access to the typical 911 workaround. Vonage, meanwhile, has rolled out a free trial version of E911 service for customers in Rhode Island.

All this is about to change thanks to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's recent approval of regulations that require all VoIP providers to offer E911 service by the end of the year. Once the new rules are published in the Federal Register, which should happen by mid-July, VoIP providers will have 120 days to deliver the goods, so VoIP customers should have E911 available by October or November. For more details, read "FCC Requires VoIP Providers to Offer E911 Service."

Behind the Scenes

The FCC's mandate is great news for VoIP users--peace of mind, at last.

You may already know about some of the tragedies that have unfolded as a result of VoIP's 911 shortcomings. In these terrible life-or-death situations, people were unable to dial 911 from their home phones. Instead they were forced to rush out to neighbors' houses to make the calls. And in the case of an emergency involving an infant girl in Deltona, Florida, it was too late.

In my opinion, the FCC's action is long overdue. Sure, the new requirements will help prevent future tragedies, but it's a shame that families had to suffer because of VoIP's known failings before something was done. These limitations have been well documented for quite a while.

While most of us rejoice about the FCC's action, VoIP players have their work cut out for them. Because VoIP calls are not routed through the conventional phone system, service providers need to find a way to connect calls to the national 911 network, which is controlled by the local telephone companies around the country, including BellSouth, Qwest, SBC, and Verizon.

So how are VoIP providers going to comply with the FCC's mandate? In the case of the bigger companies with VoIP offerings, like Verizon and AT&T, it's not such a tall order: These companies already have infrastructures in place. Other VoIP companies will choose to work with the local phone companies, competing communications carriers like Level 3 Communications, or third-party systems such as Intrado. For example, Level 3 provides the behind-the-scenes infrastructure for 8x8 and AOL that enables the two companies to offer E911 capability (among other services) to their customers.

In the past, as far as I can tell, some of the Baby Bells have been reluctant to allow VoIP companies--essentially direct competitors--access to their infrastructures. That's changing, bit by bit. For example, Vonage recently bought access to BellSouth's, SBC's, and Verizon's networks. And SunRocket got a head start on planning for E911 by working with competitors of the Baby Bells, including Global Crossing, for instance, to obtain access to local 911 infrastructures.

Whether VoIP providers work with local phone companies or competitors to link to the 911 infrastructures, there is potential for trouble--which isn't good news for consumers. "The difficulty would be in the integration between the VoIP providers' systems and these [infrastructure] links, and the testing to make sure that it all works as expected," says John Muleta, former chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and currently group co-chairman at Venable Communications. Of course, such testing will be critical before E911 is rolled out--one huge thing that VoIP providers will face as they brace themselves for the FCC's deadline. Muleta knows firsthand about these things: During his tenure at the FCC, Muleta was responsible for ensuring that wireless carriers offer 911 services.

The FCC requires the Baby Bells to grant 911 system access to direct landline competitors--companies such as Global Crossing or Level 3, for example--but does not require the Baby Bells to offer similar access to VoIP providers; nor does it put any limits on what they can charge for such access. So essentially, the FCC is making demands on the VoIP companies to get their E911 act together, but isn't giving them any assistance. Consequently, complying with the FCC's ruling is likely to be a huge financial undertaking for any VoIP company, and it's possible that some of the smaller providers will disappear--or services that are in development now may not see the light of day.

The New Ruling and You

As of this writing, the compliance deadline is several months away. Only a handful of companies I contacted had details on their E911 rollout plans; most of them indicated that they would not charge for the service. 8x8 said that it will probably continue to charge its Packet8 subscribers, but the company did not have specifics at this point.

BroadVoice expects to implement 911 in stages across its coverage area, and it hopes to meet or beat the FCC's deadline. The company is currently testing E911 services in some areas. And BroadVoice reports that it will have to charge customers for E911, when the time comes.

Brooke Schulz, senior vice president of communications and government affairs at Vonage, says that the company hopes to have E911 available to the majority of its customers by the end of the year--as long as it has the necessary access to the Baby Bells' 911 systems. "If our current agreements with Verizon, SBC, and BellSouth fall apart, we will need to seek regulatory help in gaining access to those networks," adds Schulz. In addition to E911 availability in Rhode Island, Vonage plans to roll out the service in New York City in July. 8x8 expects to have 90 percent of its customers covered by the end of the year.

SunRocket is ahead of the rest of the pack. The company says that it plans to provide E911 service to customers in its territories within 30 days of the FCC's original ruling--it isn't waiting for the actual publication date. The company also says that it no longer sells any VoIP numbers that cannot be mapped to a physical address. In addition, SunRocket will stop offering nomadic numbers, reports spokesperson Brian Lustig.

Once your VoIP provider offers E911, as with the workaround 911 process, it's not something that happens automatically. You will still need to activate the service by registering your street address with your VoIP provider. If you move or if you take your VoIP hardware with you to a temporary location, you need to go to the company's site and update your street address. Later this month, Vonage plans to offer new customers the chance to turn on 911 service while they're signing up for a calling plan. Currently, 911 activation is a separate thing; you have to turn it on after you've signed up for service.

If you already have a VoIP service and are anxious about the lack of proper 911 service, the October-November deadline for compliance with the FCC's new regulations may certainly feel like a long way off. If you still have a landline up and running, then at least you have a backup phone system.

If your VoIP phone is your only fixed line, there are a couple of things you can do to help prepare yourself for a worst-case scenario:

  • Make sure that your VoIP provider has your current street address.
  • Find the phone numbers for your local police department, fire department, and hospital emergency room, and program them into your VoIP phone (if feasible) and your cell phone. Better yet, set them as speed dial numbers if your phone has this function.

E911 for VoIP services is all very well, but remember that if you're in the middle of a power outage or your broadband connection goes on the blink, you can't dial 911 or any other phone number. Period. To get around the power loss, you can plug your telephony adapter and broadband modem and/or router into a universal power supply--and that will keep the juice going for a little while. But if your DSL or cable service fails, you're seriously out of luck. That's often enough of a reason to cling to a landline service and your old analog phone.

What do you think about the FCC's E911 ruling? Drop a line to Aoife McEvoy.
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