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Biggest Bell to hand 911 access to VoIP operators

In another sign of detente, Verizon plans to open its 911 emergency calling infrastructure to providers of Net-based phoning.

In another sign of detente between traditional phone companies and upstart VoIP businesses, Verizon Communications, the largest of the Baby Bells, said it plans to open its 911 emergency calling infrastructure to providers of Net-based phoning.

Verizon announced on Tuesday that it would start making its 911 network in New York City available to all voice over Internet Protocol providers this summer. How well things go in the Big Apple will determine whether Verizon will open the rest of the emergency network, according to spokesman Mark Marchand.

"We're going to monitor this, work out all the kinks; and if it does prove successful, we'll expand it to other places," Marchand said. "We have no timetable right now for when we'll expand beyond New York City."

Last week, Baby Bell Qwest Communications International struck a deal with VoIP company Vonage for access to Qwest's 911 infrastructure. BellSouth, after initial reluctance, has started "making some movement" in the last few weeks in negotiations with Vonage, according to a source familiar with the talks. And SBC has also begun taking steps to open up its 911 network, a representative said.

The developments are major for all Net-phone operators, including cable operators, AT&T CallVantage and Net2Phone, which are facing mounting pressure to improve less-than-optimum 911 services. For the most part, U.S. VoIP providers don't have unfettered access to the telephone system built for the nation's 3,200 emergency calling centers that are owned and controlled by Verizon and the three other Bell operating companies. So they still can't successfully route a 911 call to the right emergency calling center or provide emergency operators with the caller's phone number and location.

Last month, Vonage was sued by the state of Texas after a 17-year-old Houston girl was unable to get through to police by dialing 911 on a Vonage phone. Both her parents had been shot by intruders.

Part of the reason for the stalemate has been the difficulty in bridging traditional phones with those using VoIP technology that lets an Internet connection double as a phone line. 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.

The Bells blame the delays on the nascent state of the technology needed to route Internet phone calls over the traditional, copper-based phone infrastructure serving America's emergency dispatch centers. Because VoIP calls can be made from any Internet connection in the world, a major question the Bells face is how to provide dispatchers with the caller's location, which must accompany all 911 calls.