Net Phone Zone
Senior Editor Aoife M. McEvoy explores the exciting new
world of Internet telephony, from hardware and services to government
The 411 on 911
Access to 911 emergency services is one of the most controversial
issues in VoIP today. Here's what it's all about -- and what it means
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
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
Behind the Scenes
The FCC's mandate is great news for VoIP users -- peace of mind, at
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
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:
a.. Make sure that your VoIP provider has your current street address.
b.. 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.
Copyright 2005 PC World.
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