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Net phone providers describe E911 obstacles

VoIP providers say they're offering enhanced 911 as quickly as possible--but it's no small task.

ARLINGTON, Va.--Federal regulators have spent much of the past year prodding Internet phone providers to link their customers to the enhanced 911 system, but accomplishing that goal is no small feat, industry representatives said Tuesday.

The enhanced 911, or E911, system is a step up from the basic 911 system in that it supplies emergency call operators with the caller's geographical location and callback phone number. The Federal Communications Commission has decreed that such E911 service must be mandatory and new customers will be denied the option of choosing voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service without it.

"We're making progress, but it's extremely complex," said Mary Boyd, a vice president at Intrado, which offers Net phone providers database technology designed to deliver such information to public safety operators. Boyd participated in a panel discussion at a conference here sponsored by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a strong proponent of improving 911 technology. Others on the panel included representatives from Verizon Communications and Vonage, as well as a Brevard County, Fla., official who has been working closely on implementation issues.

One obstacle lies in the maintenance of the database, known as the Master Street Address Guide, which stores a 911 dialer's location information. Because in many cases it's up to Net phone users to update that address, it "can be whatever the subscriber believes their address to be, and those of you who have been involved in 911 for a while know that's not necessarily an accurate" descriptor, said Roger Hixson, NENA's technical issues director.

Another challenge has proven to be coordination among all the appropriate parties--Net phone providers, telecommunications companies that own 911 infrastructure, companies such as Intrado that provide call-routing technology and public safety operators.

"There was really no guidance or guidelines given to us," said Steve O'Conor of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners, adding that he was in the process of drafting such a document for others to use in the future.

Virtually all Net phone providers already supply at least basic 911 capabilities, according to statistics from the Voice On the Net Coalition, which represents VoIP providers. But as of last November, about 750,000 of an estimated 2.5 million residential VoIP subscribers didn't have E911 access, the coalition reported.

Faced with reports of VoIP emergency call failures that resulted in tragedy, the FCC announced last June that all Net phone providers must equip their networks with E911 call-routing prowess by the fall--or cut off customers without such access. A U.S. Senate panel also has edged closer to passing legislation imposing such a requirement, though with less stringent consequences for noncompliance.

Under pressure from industry and public safety groups fearing such a hard rule would do more harm than good, the FCC eventually backed off on its deadline. Instead, it set the condition that no Net phone company can market its services or take on new customers in areas where E911 isn't available.

"We have a long way to go to get the rest of our customers done," said Maureen Napolitano, director of E911 customer service for Verizon, which rolled out E911 coverage for all of its New York City subscribers last July and said it would enable other area VoIP providers to do the same.

VoIP isn't the only industry still working to deploy E911 access. Nearly 10 years ago, the FCC ordered wireless carriers to do so, though it didn't set a similarly rigorous deadline. An estimated 81 million Americans still live in areas without full E911 access, according to the Voice On the Net Coalition.