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Networking

SBC frees up line to Net 911

Finally falls in with other Baby Bells with promise to help VoIP callers get better access to emergency operators.

SBC Communications announced plans on Wednesday to help Internet phone companies offer more-reliable 911 services for their subscribers, becoming the last of the Baby Bells to tackle worrisome emergency-service defects.

The phone giant's offer follows similar moves by BellSouth, Qwest Communications and Verizon Communications to open emergency dispatch networks to voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) operators. SBC was expected to follow suit. Last month, the company said that it was already working with Vonage, a large VoIP company, on the issue.

Most VoIP operators lack full access to the national 911 infrastructure, which is owned and controlled by the four big local phone companies known as the Baby Bells. The result is that some emergency calls placed over VoIP phones are routed to emergency-service administrative offices instead of to emergency dispatchers.

Concerns have been raised over the service gap, with critics saying it could have tragic consequences. A family in Florida claims that faulty emergency-call service played a role in the death of their infant daughter in March. The family said that when they used their Vonage phone to dial 911 after the child stopped breathing, the call was routed to a closed sheriff's office.

In Houston, a teenager was unable to reach police by dialing 911 on a Vonage phone after her parents had been shot by a robber. The state of Texas is suing the company over the incident.

SBC's new service will give Internet phone users "the safety and security" of traditional 911 services, the company said. The system also allows emergency dispatchers to view the address and call-back number of VoIP callers dialing from fixed locations.

Net phone services, which let Internet connections double as home phone lines, are rapidly gaining popularity. The number of residential Net phone subscribers in the United States is set to surge from 3 million this year to 27 million by 2009, according to data released by IDC last month.