Texas sues Vonage over 911 problem

U.S. Net phone leader wasn't clear about technology's less reliable 911 service, state attorney general claims.

The attorney general of Texas is suing Internet phone provider Vonage, charging that the company isn't clear to its customers about deficiencies in its 911 service.

Vonage 911 calls aren't routed in the traditional manner. Rather, most end up at the administrative offices of the 6,000 emergency calls centers rather than dispatchers. According to Abbott, the dangers of the circuitous route were exposed in when a 17-year-old Houston girl was unable to get through to police after dialing 911 on a Vonage phone after both her parents were shot by intruders.

In the U.S. District Court suit, announced Tuesday, Attorney General Greg Abbott alleges that Vonage doesn't "clearly disclose the lack of traditional 911 access" nor adequately inform its customers they must first sign up for the free 911 service. Such an omission violates state law dealing with deceptive trade practices, the state attorney general alleges. The state is asking for civil penalties of more than $20,000 and an injunction requiring more conspicuous disclosure.

A Vonage spokeswoman said the company was surprised to hear of the litigation and pointed out there are numerous references, both on the Internet and material mailed to customers, explaining the 911 service's limitations and its proactive nature. Abbott's office contacted New Jersey-based Vonage about a week ago asking for marketing materials and other information; the company hadn't heard anything since it replied with the materials two days ago, the spokeswoman said.

The Houston incident was fresh evidence of continuing 911 problems for Net phone providers. Vonage is among the largest sellers of voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, telephone services, which use the unregulated Internet rather than the heavily taxed traditional phone network. That network is dominated by the four local Bell phone giants, which provide 911 services over their circuit-switched and copper-wire-based networks. The majority of U.S. Net phone providers still cannot successfully route a 911 call to the right emergency calling center and also provide emergency operators with the caller's phone number and location.

There has been recent progress, however. The Bells are closer than ever to allowing Net phone operators direct access to their emergency call infrastructure, which would ease a major impediment to offering better 911 VoIP service. Also, several new products offer the promise of lowering the technology hurdles. For instance, Intrado, a major provider of emergency-calling services to traditional telephone operators, has developed a full-fledged 911 service for VoIP operators.

Vonage and other Net phone providers are used to combative utility regulators; VoIP phone call regulations are expected in the next few months from the Federal Communications Commission, while a handful of state public utility commissions are trying, with only moderate success, to regulate the calls as well.

This is the first time a state attorney general has brought an action against Vonage.

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