Raising alarms about 911 over Net phones

Regulators in the U.S. and Canada are entering the battle over emergency calls via Internet phones.

Time is running out for fast-growing Net phone providers to fully support 911 emergency services, a key but costly public safety feature that few now provide.

In recent weeks, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued Vonage , a pioneer in voice over Internet Protocol to force it to be more open about its 911 deficiencies in the wake of a shooting in Houston. In Canada, meanwhile, officials this week ordered fixed-line VoIP companies to establish viable 911 service support within 90 days--or shut down.

The Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission acted "in light of the limitations on 911 service," said spokesman Denis Carmel.


What's new:
Regulators in the U.S. and Canada are entering the battle over emergency calls via Internet phones.

Bottom line:
The lack of a proper 911 system for Net phones has government agencies pushing for faster action. That could mean higher prices and increased regulatory oversight of the nascent industry.

More stories on Internet telephony

Increased regulatory pressure comes as the phone industry braces for rapid adoption of Internet telephony services with the entry into the market of cable companies and Web giants such as America Online. Now, as a growing number of people drop their local phone lines for VoIP systems, signs are multiplying that lawmakers and utility regulators are no longer content to let providers go at their own slow pace in developing a proper 911 system .

This issue is unlikely to derail Net telephony completely, but it could lead to higher prices and increased regulatory oversight of the nascent industry. Ripple effects could also reach traditional phone networks and the Bells, as VoIP providers call on authorities to help broker deals that would allow them to roll out 911 support faster.

In a sign that regulators take the problem seriously, the Federal Communications Commission has quietly met with the Bell operating companies to learn why they've yet to grant Net phone providers unfettered access to their 911 telephone infrastructure, and by doing so let them offer a competitive 911 service.

North of the border, the clock is ticking on the 90-day deadline--which will come sometime around July 4--for all Internet phone providers to have a 911 system comparable to what's now in the market. In most parts of Canada, that means an enhanced 911 system capable of letting police know the caller's location. The operator must otherwise shut down.

Sources said U.S. lawmakers are now being asked to draft rules requiring the Bells open their 911 infrastructure to Net phone providers.

"This is the last remaining major customer issue. One would hope this would tip the scales," said Vonage Chief Executive Jeffrey Citron . "We've built this 911 system, we've tested it, and in some cases passed the carriers' own tests, yet we can't even get a simple connection. Authorities have to step in. They have to ask questions--like whether these carriers are breaking the law."

The cost factor
The cost of adding 911 support using current methods appears to be a key contributor to the delays. Bleeding-edge 911 services for Net phone systems are available from Intrado and Level 3 Communications, but they are very expensive. That means VoIP providers trying to meet the new pressure for better 911 may have to pass these extra costs onto their subscribers, at least in the short term, to cover their new costs. To date, just a few deep-pocketed providers--mainly cable operators and big-name brands like America Online entering the VoIP market--can afford to hire these third parties, and the prices of these services are typically higher than the industry average.

For a time, it appeared the telephone industry's various warring factions could sort out the problem on their own. But in mid-March, a Houston-area Vonage subscriber's call to 911, after


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