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Net phone company's answer to 911

As VoIP takes off, one company is tackling a problem that's caught the attention of regulators: How to pinpoint people making emergency calls.

As Internet phone calling starts to take off, one company is tackling a still-missing part of the puzzle: How to pinpoint people making emergency calls.

VoIP Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based maker of hardware and applications for placing phone calls over the Internet, said Thursday that it has a U.S. patent pending for technology to redirect such 911 calls back to copper landlines to be picked up by traditional emergency systems.

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With the technology, which is already being tested by Comcast and XO Communications and several other voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) carriers, the company aims to address concerns over how 911 operators locate people in trouble.

The same technology that allows VoIP users to be mobile is creating difficulties for service providers trying to meet the Federal Communications Commission's requirements for so-called enhanced 911 (E911) requirements. The nature of Internet phoning means that people can make or receive calls at the same phone number regardless of where they are in the world.

To add to the problem, most VoIP service providers don't have a direct line to emergency call centers, using instead a circuitous route.

To give emergency operators some sense of where a VoIP call is coming from, service providers automatically supply them with a subscriber's current address. Problems arise when a 911 call is made over a broadband connection outside the home, such as from a hotel room or a cafe with Wi-Fi connections. Operators may assume the call has been dialed from the home address, unless told otherwise.


Most VoIP providers warn their customers of the possible problems and urge them to keep address information up to date. People are also advised to give their location to emergency operators when not at home.

The FCC has pledged to take a low-key approach in pushing VoIP providers to offer E911--a bow to the technical difficulties the industry faces. But the longer it takes for the industry, the more pressure the FCC faces to come up with a regulatory solution.

CEO Steven Ivester believes VoIP Inc.'s "low-tech" approach will prove more effective than an E911 approach. More importantly, he said, it provides a quick fix for the emergency-tracking problem, allowing VoIP carriers to begin offering new services more quickly, especially since the package of hardware and software has already been approved by the FCC.

"Rather than attempting to merge analog and digital technology, as carriers would be forced to do in order to meet E911, this gives them an immediate way to provide emergency coverage," Ivester said. "We think this is a very simple solution that basically eliminates years of development for carriers trying to solve the 911 problem."

The VoIP Inc. system, labeled "Method and System for Back-up of Voice Over IP Emergency Calls" on its patent application, promises to automatically recognize when emergency numbers such as "911" are dialed and to switch the calls to traditional landlines, allowing people to be located as they have been for years. Since local telephone services providers are required by law to provide dial-tones on unused phone lines explicitly for emergency use, people who have shut off their landline services in favor of VoIP can still reach authorities using the package.

In addition to routing 911 and other emergency calls to landlines, the VoIP Inc. device also promises to provide a fail-safe mechanism for handling calls during a power failure--an event that can disable many existing VoIP phones.

Nelson Tarke, a regional sales manager for XO Communications, said the VoIP Inc. emergency system has alleviated a major concern at the company and will allow the Internet phone market to develop faster than it could without such a tool.

"This is going to morph the industry and let a lot of carriers move forward with plans to introduce new services," Tarke said. "And it's not just a Band-Aid, it's a cure, because it meets the FCC regulations and eliminates a huge problem for the foreseeable future."

Among the other carriers testing the product, which is already available from VoIP Inc., are AT&T, Bellsouth and SBC Communications. Ivester said the device's greatest advantage is its simplicity.

"It's such a simple answer to the problem, it's really sort of dumb that no one thought it up before," he said. "Upgrading existing VoIP systems to meet E911 could be a $1 billion problem, but we think we've solved it--at least for the next two years or so, as companies work on their infrastructure."

Ivester said he expects to receive patent approval within 18 months.

The need to plug the VoIP Inc. device into a traditional phone line is a bit "clumsy," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. But he conceded that the idea could serve as an effective answer to the 911 issue while carriers work on their own plans.

Golvin added that the problem of locating emergency calls is representative of the many hurdles that face current VoIP technologies.

"In a world where most people still have (local landlines) used primarily for cost avoidance, things like emergency calling are less of an issue," he said. "But for users willing to go all the way, the risks for those people and their carriers remain hard to understand."

In February, a group of companies working on VoIP products and services, including AT&T and Microsoft, established the Voice Over Internet Coalition to work on managing and limiting regulation of the Internet phone calling market. One of the issues the group is known to be working on is addressing the application of the E911 guideline to VoIP.

CNET's Ben Charny contributed to this report.