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FAQ: Why the FCC is targeting VoIP 911 calls

Emergency calls made over Net phone connections aren't always reliable. The Feds want a foolproof system.

Law and order are coming to VoIP 911.

Most Americans take it for granted that when they dial 911 they will reach a dispatcher who can immediately summon an ambulance, fire truck or police patrol. That dispatcher might even dispense preliminary advice for those with medical emergencies. But for the growing number of people who are using their broadband connections to make phone calls--using a technology known as VoIP, or voice over Internet Protocol--that assumption could prove dangerous.

Because of a range of technical and other problems, VoIP 911 calls are often unreliable. After-hours calls in particular may be misdirected to emergency-services administrative offices, where a recorded message explains that the offices are closed and that callers should dial 911 if there's an emergency. What's more, VoIP 911 calls that do reach dispatchers often aren't accompanied by the caller's phone number and location.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission stepped in with the first rules addressing 911 calls on VoIP. The questions and answers here focus on how the system works, what action the FCC is taking and how its ruling will affect customers and VoIP providers.

What is VoIP? How many people use it?
Software geared for voice over Internet Protocol allows an Internet connection to double as a phone line, often at savings of up to 50 percent over what traditional local and long-distance companies charge. About 5.5 million people worldwide use Net phone technology.

Why doesn't it mesh with the current 911 system?
Because the calls aren't routed through the traditional phone system, they must find another way to transfer into the 911 infrastructure that serves the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. That transfer has so far posed technical, business and political hurdles.

What the government's plan for addressing the problem?
The FCC has ruled that Net providers connecting in some way to the traditional phone network will have 120 days to find a way to steer 911 calls to the appropriate dispatchers. Those calls also must include data such as the caller's address and phone number.

Who's impacted?
Until the details are sorted out, it'll be tough to say with precision. Right now, it looks like the vast majority of the Net phone industry--almost everyone that sells some way of calling from a PC to a regular phone.

What other parts of the ruling will be troublesome?
Many VoIP operators say the 120-day deadline is not feasible, so look for lots of extension requests as the deadline nears. Another contentious issue is whether to guarantee Net phone operators access to the 911 infrastructure, which is owned and operated by the Bell phone companies, namely Verizon Communications, SBC Communications, BellSouth and Qwest Communications International. Those companies consider the VoIP providers direct competitors.

Are 911 calls now possible on VoIP phones?
You'll have the best luck with emergency calls made over broadband cable connections rather than those made over DSL lines. At this point, VoIP-based emergency calls are most consistently reliable in Rhode Island, where the state owns the 911 infrastructure and has successfully tested a way for such calls to pass through the system accompanied by the phone number and address of the caller.

What happens to VoIP 911 calls in other markets?
The calls are intercepted by the Net phone operator, which then tries to figure out where they should go. Some operators, mainly cable companies, are able to consistently get the calls to the right emergency service operator, but can't guarantee the calls are accompanied by the right address or a call-back number. Others, mainly smaller Net phone operators, redirect 911 calls to emergency-call center administrative offices, without addresses or call-back phone numbers. The calls then must be redirected to the emergency dispatcher.

What's so bad about reaching administrative offices?
The person answering the call isn't trained to handle emergencies, and crucial seconds are lost in the transfer. Also, after-hours 911 calls are answered by a recording that, in many cases, merely advises people to call 911 if there's an emergency.

How can I tell how my calls are being handled if I am a VoIP customer?
Net phone providers are under increasing pressure to be more open about 911 issues. Most of their marketing materials, whether they are mailed or posted on their Web sites, note the problems.

What is the source of the problem?
There are two major issues--one that's being quickly resolved and another that's difficult to remedy.

After a lot of resistance, the four Bell operators recently opened their 911 infrastructure to VoIP operators. The second problem is much thornier. Because they can be made over any Internet connection, the location of VoIP 911 callers can be difficult to determine.

If I have VoIP, what can I do to call 911?
Nearly every Net phone operator suggests keeping a traditional phone line or a cell phone handy just for emergencies.

Does every VoIP service come with 911?
Most now do, in some form or another.

Do you have to sign up for 911?
The service is automatically provided, but not until operators collect your address.

What does Skype, the world's largest VoIP provider, say about the issue?
Skype doesn't offer 911 connectivity and "it's very proactive in communicating that to users," said Skype spokeswoman Kelly Larabee. Anything's possible, but it would seem incredibly difficult and prohibitively expensive for Skype to set up a system in which every call to 911 is routed to the most appropriate emergency-response location. It's a matter of logistics. Skype would have to know the names and addresses of hundreds of millions of people located around the globe, then ensure each and every one's location was updated whenever they moved. No VoIP operator has ever tried that before.

Still, on Thursday Skype said it is "working with the FCC to develop appropriate emergency response solutions for IP-based communications services."

What does Vonage say?
Vonage, the No. 1 VoIP operator in the U.S. with 650,000 customers, is among the closest to meeting the FCC mandate. It's already offering fully compliant 911 service to its handful of customers in Rhode Island, and plans to introduce a fully featured 911 service over the next six months.

What's the difference between the two companies' systems?
Skype's software, once downloaded onto your PC, cell phone or handheld computer, allows you to freely converse with anyone else who also is running that software. The company charges extra to send and receive calls from traditional phones and other premium services.

Vonage is a commercial U.S.-based service provider that sells unlimited phone calls to any kind of phone for a flat monthly fee. As a result, it already is tapped into the traditional phone network.

Do cable phone services offer 911?
Cox Communications is the only cable operator that meets any mandate the FCC is likely to create. Time Warner Cable and Comcast both would, but for 911 calls made from the customer's original service address.