Vonage may route 911 call to Congress, FCC

The Net phone provider considers asking for help solving problems with SBC over subscriber access to the emergency network.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Net phone provider Vonage may ask Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to help it solve problems with SBC over subscriber access to the 911 emergency call network.

A decision by SBC not to work more closely with Vonage, made public Wednesday, may delay efforts to fix the problem that keeps a majority of U.S. Net phone providers from successfully routing 911 calls to the right emergency calling center. Many of those 911 calls are instead sent to nonemergency operators, with no guarantee the calls will reach dispatch centers close enough to provide the most effective help.

In mid-February, Vonage asked the four Baby Bells--SBC, BellSouth, Qwest Communications International and Verizon Communications--to provide access to their 911 infrastructure within the next 60 days. At first, it appeared the logjam had been broken: SBC met with Vonage to work out the logistics; Verizon, the largest Bell, also committed to testing just such a system; and Qwest, the smallest of the Bells, began considering its options.

SBC has so far refused to cooperate with Vonage on 911 to the degree Vonage would like. This week, SBC told the FCC that Vonage and other Net phone providers first must develop a standard way to route the 911 calls appropriately, rather than expect SBC to work with each VoIP company individually. What Vonage was asking for in its letters was for SBC to trial a proprietary fix. "SBC cannot agree to engage in numerous individual tests with each and every VoIP provider," it recently told the FCC, referring to the Net phone technology also known as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

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SBC has been working with Vonage on this issue for several months and plans to continue to do so, according to its FCC response.

Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said Vonage is considering asking Congress and the FCC to demand SBC open up its 911 infrastructure to Vonage and other Net phone operators. In refuting SBC's proprietary claim, Schulz said operators Packet8; AT&T, with its CallVantage service; and Verizon, with its VoiceWing, all use the same 911 products, "so how can SBC call what we're doing proprietary?"

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Verizon and Bellsouth have responded to the letters and are "playing ball," according to Vonage. Qwest has also not responded to the Vonage letters. But, of the four Bells, Qwest is the furthest along in working with Vonage, and Vonage isn't worried about the lack of a reply. Qwest already successfully tested such access for Vonage emergency calls in Kings County, Wash.

VoIP calling has long posed a problem for 911--a result of the technology behind Internet calling. With VoIP, calls are packaged in Internet Protocol (IP), the same routing instructions that form the backbone of the Internet. VoIP services, as a result, can be much cheaper because the calls aren't subject to the same expensive federal and state telephone rules the Bells and other traditional phone operators must follow.

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 perform 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 VoIP start-ups.