Raising alarms about 911 over Net phones

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

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
7 min read
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.

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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.

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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

both her parents were shot by intruders, never got through to police. Instead, the Houston teen got a recording from the Net phone company her family recently began using, telling her that 911 service wasn't available. She managed to escape to summon authorities and an ambulance from elsewhere--with a phone that did provide 911 connection.

That incident is coupled with a renewed sense that Net phone adoption is speeding up, and drawing more attention from regulators. The number of residential Net phone subscribers in the United States is set to grow from 3 million in 2005 to 27 million by 2009, according to data released by IDC.

"As is their right, the FCC is trying to get in front of this," said Mike Balmoris, a spokesman for local phone giant SBC Communications. "We welcome that."

The Houston scenario spotlighted once again how 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. The problem is that the Bells have yet to give VoIP providers unfettered 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 able to get them directly to trained emergency dispatchers, the calls are typically routed 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.

"Sometimes, a VoIP 911 caller only hears some automated voice telling them an administrative office is closed, and that if this is a real emergency, they should dial 911," said John Melcher, executive director of the 911 call center in Houston, which is the second largest in the country. "But they can't."

Few options
The 911 headaches come on a number of levels. Even if VoIP providers do get direct access to the 911 infrastructure, most of the emergency call centers can't yet deal with IP phone calls. That's the result of tight state and federal budgets that leave them with little to spend on new gear, plus the perception among police officials that there's little reason yet to do the costly conversions.

There's also a regulatory conundrum that would require the Bells to bend the rules a bit to help a competitor. Any VoIP carrier wanting to directly connect to the 911 system must be a certified carrier. That's fine for deep-pocketed corporations that can afford to hire lawyers and regulatory lobbyists to track, obey and even influence the rules. It's not so easy for small start-ups.

These and other reasons leave Net phone providers few options. Most route customers' 911 calls to a nonemergency operator rather than directly to a better-trained dispatcher, and there's no guarantee the calls are reaching dispatch centers close enough to provide the most help. Vonage and other VoIP operators that want to offer a competitive 911 service hire companies like Intrado, a provider of what are known as enhanced 911 services, which include a caller's street address and phone number.

But none of these options attack the core of the problem. Net phones can work from any broadband connection anywhere, unlike traditional phones, which are typically rooted in one spot. A caller can take

the Internet phone he or she usually uses at home, plug it into a broadband connection anywhere in the world and dial from the same number. So operators can't know whether a caller, who might be unable to give a location, is at the home address associated with that number. To help patch together interim solutions, most VoIP companies warn customers to constantly update their account information with their new locations.

The Bell operating companies are all in various early stages of dealing with the problem on their own.

Slow pace of change
Their hesitance may be due in part to their typical glacial pace of development, which in this case seeks to find the appropriate way for a call originating on the Internet to find their way to the 911 phone systems, which use incompatible circuit switches.

"These guys are in no rush. They do things methodically, thoroughly and completely," said Samuel Simon, chairman of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a consumer telephone advocacy group. "Now you have an upstart like Vonage, which would like this thing fixed now and on their timetable."

From Vonage's perspective, according to various FCC filings, the Bells haven't acted quickly enough because they believe Vonage is asking for access beyond the realm of what's justified under the circumstances.

"911 capability is critical to our communities and needs to be carefully maintained by the providers that use it," BellSouth spokesman Todd Smith wrote in an e-mail. "There are existing procedures to connect to the 911 network today, which several providers, including some that offer VoIP services, now utilize. Vonage has opted not to follow existing practices and has requested nonstandard support. As with any other special requests, BellSouth will work with Vonage to see what can be done."

After initial reluctance, BellSouth in the last few weeks has started "making some movement" on the issue, Vonage's Citron said. "It's the first of that we've seen from BellSouth," he adds.

The most resistant is SBC, according to various sources. 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. While it's since signaled a willingness to begin negotiations again, Citron is leery.

Perhaps the furthest along is Qwest Communications International, which has already trialed a Net phone 911 program with Vonage. But the operator has since turned down a request to permanently install the system.

Verizon Communications has promised to begin a trial of VoIP 911 in New York City relatively soon, a recent breakthrough that is "a very promising and good first step," said Citron. "But they haven't committed beyond that."