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Cops missing out on IP benefits

Emergency-call operators could have life-saving information at their fingertips, but tight state budgets and technological inertia will delay needed upgrades.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--With the growing use of Internet Protocol inside telephone networks, 911 operators could have life-saving information at their fingertips.

But those gathered here for the Spring 2004 Voice on the Net Conference & Expo warn that the nation's 2,300 emergency call centers are missing out on a technological breakthrough touted as on par with the invention of police car radios.

By upgrading to IP equipment, 911 calls could be accompanied by much more information, such as callers' medical records or maps of the inside of their homes. But tight state budgets and technological inertia will delay, likely for years, upgrades that 911 call centers need to make to the century-old radio technology they now use, industry executives and officials say.

It's a "case where the communications link is outstripping the ability of the network and the funding ability of the local agencies," said Robert Pepper, the Federal Communications Commission's chief of policy development. "It turns out to be a huge problem."

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The concerns only add to the problems that the broadband phone industry has created for law enforcement. More immediate problems are meeting soon-to-be drafted mandates to wiretap Internet-based calls or to provide the location of someone dialing 911 via a broadband connection.

A representative of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International had no immediate comment.

Broadband phone service, otherwise known as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), is the latest telephone technology to outpace the nation's law enforcers. The most recent was cell phones.

Police in only a small number of cities are now able to determine the location of someone calling 911 via a cell phone, even though the U.S. cell phone industry made the necessary technology available in 100 markets last year. In May, when carriers will have to offer so-called enhanced 911 everywhere, at least one-third of all rural police agencies won't be able to use the information, according to sources familiar with the situation.

VoIP is a technology for making phones calls using the most popular method for sending data from one computer to another. Internet telephony services typically promise consumers a smaller phone bill, largely because VoIP providers operate free of regulation.

Carriers are already embracing VoIP as a way to cut traffic costs on international and long-distance calls. VoIP eventually is expected to replace the public switched telephone network as big phone companies convert to IP-based fiber-optic networks.