Tue Mar 1, 2005
By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
Seventeen-year-old Joyce John frantically grasped the portable phone and dialed 911. Downstairs, her parents struggled with two armed robbers.
"Joyce, Joyce, call the police!" her mother, Sosamma, screamed. But when she did, she heard this message: "Stop. You must dial 911 from another telephone."
Joyce grabbed another phone downstairs but got the same recording. She finally banged on the door of a neighbor, who called an ambulance. By then, her parents had been shot. They survived, but their attackers fled.
The problem: Joyce tried to call from a phone with Internet-based technology, known as VoIP, for voice over Internet protocol. Even though the family’s VoIP service provided a basic 911 feature, Joyce’s father, Peter, didn’t realize he had to activate it.
The ordeal, which happened last month in Houston, points up a challenge for Internet-based phone companies as they struggle to provide 911 service to their growing base of subscribers.
Some VoIP providers don’t offer 911 at all. More typically, those such as Vonage and AT&T offer a bare-bones 911 service that doesn’t show operators a caller’s number or address. And it doesn’t ring on the emergency phone lines in the dispatch center. As a result, some 911 centers don’t accept the calls.
Several VoIP providers do offer a full-featured 911- called Enhanced 911, or E-911 – that’s akin to the 911 feature most consumers have today with regular phone service. But it sometimes costs extra.
Vonage, the No. 1 VoIP provider, has been working with states, 911 directors and local phone companies to bring free E-911 to customers. Its efforts have bogged down, though, partly over regulatory hurdles.
Net phone market growing
The problem looms larger as the VoIP market swells. The number of U.S. VoIP customers is likely to rise from 750,000 to about 9 million by 2008, researcher In-Stat/MDR says. And a rising number of people use VoIP as their primary service.
Here’s how VoIP works: It turns voice calls into data packets that zip over the Internet before switching back to voice at the other end. Customers plug an adapter into a broadband line and get unlimited local and long-distance service for as little as $16 a month. Though many subscribers are aware they have either no 911 or a lesser version of it, others don’t know they must activate the service.
"I never … imagined that I didn’t have 911 (automatically)," says Joyce’s father, Peter John, whose provider is Vonage.
Vonage requires customers to activate 911 by registering their service address. That’s because the adapter can be plugged into a phone and broadband line anywhere, even outside a subscriber’s billing state. So without a registered address, calls wouldn’t automatically go to the right 911 center.
Another hurdle is that state officials can’t require VoIP providers to offer 911 service. That’s because federal regulators ruled last year that VoIP is not a traditional phone service subject to state regulation.
The VoIP providers pushed for the ruling because they didn’t want to be burdened by fees and other hassles that would raise their costs. But as a result, the regional Bells don’t have to let VoIP services connect to their E-911 call-routing switches and databases that contain customer numbers and addresses.
By contrast, the big cable companies include E-911 free with their VoIP services. As regulated telecom services, theyalready had access to the Bell networks.
The lack of E-911 "is a very large negative" as Vonage competes with the phone and cable giants, says the company’s CEO, Jeffrey Citron.
Vonage, AT&T and others have devised a temporary fix. They forward subscribers’ 911 calls to a dispatch center’s phone number for non-emergency calls.
But many 911 officials say that wreaks havoc because the caller’s address doesn’t display. That wastes precious seconds in an emergency. And if the caller can’t speak, the dispatcher doesn’t know where to send help. Operators don’t even know it’s an emergency call. So the phone could ring for minutes, or callers could be put on hold. As a result, cities and counties in several states, including Arkansas, Alabama and Virginia, won’t accept 911 calls from VoIP services.
"I hate it because it’s not coming in on my network," says Bob Oenning, 911 director for Washington state.
Vonage has been working in about 15 states to try to deliver properly routed E-911 calls. The proposed solution: a shortcut that lets the E-911 call-routing switch recognize the out-of-state area codes many VoIP customers choose.
At the same time, the company would access the 911 databases that contain customer numbers and addresses. Customers would update their address if they moved or used another broadband line.
Vonage has been using a version of this method in Rhode Island, where officials control the 911 network. In most states, though, the Bells control 911 switches and databases and have been uncooperative, Vonage Vice President Brooke Schulz says. State regulators and 911 directors, she adds, have failed to pressure the phone giants. Several state and Bell officials say they’re loath to act because of the regulatory uncertainty.
"We’re not willing to make changes to standard 911 industry practice until the industry agrees someone other than carriers can access the database," Qwest spokeswoman Silvia McLachlan says.
Verizon and BellSouth say they’re waiting for 911 officials to publish this spring a standard set of VoIP 911 procedures that can be used everywhere.
Citron says the Bells are stonewalling to maintain a competitive edge. Steve Seitz of the National Emergency Number Association says, "I would hope we don’t throw up barriers when it comes to 911."
The Bells blame VoIP services for the quagmire. They say the VoIP companies can access the Bells’ E-911 systems for a fee. One VoIP provider, 8×8, buys E-911 from a regulated Bell rival and offers it as a monthly option. Citron says those services won’t work for the out-of-state numbers many of its customers use.
A solution could be near. By next year, Congress is expected to update phone laws to leave VoIP services largely free of regulation but require them to provide E-911. The Bells likely would have to give them access to their 911 systems.
The industry is also developing a 911 system that would locate users based on a computer’s Internet address or wireless global positioning data. It could, for instance, route Hispanic callers to Spanish-speaking operators. That service could be several years away.