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Networking

Qwest gives Vonage the 911

Baby Bell hands VoIP operator proper access to emergency network. Other Bells, VoIP companies could follow, filling major hole in Net phoning.

Vonage says it has negotiated access to Qwest Communications International's 911 infrastructure, another sign that Vonage and other VoIP operators are closer than ever to tackling a major hurdle to offering better emergency service.

The agreement enables 911 calls from Vonage customers to travel over Qwest's emergency calling infrastructure in 14 states, so the calls go directly to emergency dispatchers rather than taking the circuitous, and some believe irresponsible, route they now take. News of the arrangement appeared in a letter Vonage sent to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week.

The agreement may pressure the three other Bell operating companies, Verizon Communications, SBC Communications and BellSouth, to provide Vonage--and by extension other providers of voice over Internet Protocol service--with the same sort of unfettered access to their 911 networks.

For the most part, U.S. Net-phone providers still cannot successfully route a 911 call to the right emergency calling center or provide emergency operators with the caller's phone number and location. The problem is mainly that the Bells have yet to give VoIP providers no-holds-barred access to the 911 infrastructure linking more than 3,200 emergency call centers.

That forces the Net-phone companies into less-effective ways of routing 911 calls. Rather than being routed directly to trained emergency dispatchers, the calls are typically shunted to administrative lines at call centers, which then transfer them to dispatchers. In an emergency, the few seconds lost could be the difference between life and death.

"Vonage applaud(s) Qwest for its willingness to put the health and safety of Americans before short-term competitive considerations," Vonage attorney William Wilhelm Jr. wrote to the FCC. A Qwest representative couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

The agreement with Qwest was expected; the smallest of the four Bell operating phone companies has already trialed a Net-phone 911 service in Rhode Island. Verizon has promised to begin a trial of VoIP 911 in New York City relatively soon, a fairly recent and promising breakthrough After initial reluctance, BellSouth in the last few weeks has started "making some movement" on the issue, according to Vonage.

But this momentum could be spoiled by one detractor: SBC, which, according to various sources, is proving the most hesitant to work with VoIP operators. That company had planned to trial the Vonage 911 system nine months ago but backed out without explanation. Then, last month, it deflected Vonage's formal request to begin the trial. Though it has since signaled a willingness to begin negotiations again, Vonage representatives said the company remains leery.