Bells ringing in Net phone 911

Meetings between nation's local phone elite and Net phone providers are spurring action to ease major VoIP concern.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
A 17-year-old girl's call to 911 earlier this month after both her parents were shot by intruders never got through to police.

Rather, the Houston teen got a recording from the Net phone company her family recently began using telling her that 911 service wasn't available. She managed to escape to summon authorities and an ambulance from elsewhere--with a phone that did provide 911 connection.

This nightmarish scenario is fresh evidence of continuing 911 problems for Net phone providers, say executives gathering for this week's Voice on the Net Spring 2005 trade show in San Jose, Calif. Net phone providers sell voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, telephone services that use the unregulated Internet rather than the more expensive, heavily taxed and less efficient traditional phone network. That network is dominated by the four local phone giants, also called the Baby Bells, which provide 911 services. The majority of U.S. Net phone providers still cannot successfully route a 911 call to the right emergency calling center and also provide emergency operators with the caller's phone number and location.

There has been recent progress, however. The Bells are closer than ever to allowing Net phone operators direct access to their emergency call infrastructure, which would ease a major hurdle in offering better 911 VoIP service.

Also, there are several promising new products being introduced at this week's VON conference. The most important appears to be from Intrado, a major provider of 911 services to traditional telephone operators. Intrado has developed a full-fledged 911 service for VoIP operators.

"Currently, limitations...make it impossible to pass a (Net phone) customer's emergency calls through the Bells' selective routers to the appropriate public safety answering point," U.S. VoIP operator Vonage Chief Executive Jeff Citron wrote recently. Vonage, at 500,000 customers, is the largest U.S. provider of VoIP. "These problems are not insurmountable."

VoIP calling has long posed a problem for 911, the result of the technology behind Internet calling. The calls are packaged in the 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--Qwest Communications, SBC, Verizon Communications and BellSouth--and other traditional phone operators must follow.

VoIP can be anywhere
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 do 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.

These and other reasons leave Net phone providers few 911 options. Most route customers' 911 calls to a non-emergency operator rather than directly to a better-trained dispatcher, and there's no guarantee the calls are reaching dispatch centers close enough to provide the most help.

The Bells step up
Vonage and other VoIP operators that want to offer a competitive 911 service hire companies like Intrado, a 25-year-old provider of what are known as enhanced 911 services, which include a caller's street address and phone number.

But none of these options attack the core of the problem. Net phones can work from any broadband connection anywhere, unlike traditional phones, which are typically rooted in one spot. A caller can take the VoIP phone he usually uses at home, plug it into a broadband connection anywhere in the world and dial from the same number. So operators can't know that a caller, who might be unable to give a location, is at the home address they have associated with that number. To help patch together interim solutions, most VoIP companies warn customers to constantly update their account information with their new locations.

But the Bells seems to be stepping up their own efforts to fix the situation. In mid-February, Vonage asked the Bells to begin, within 60 days, to provide the VoIP provider access to the 911 infrastructure, and told U.S. utility regulators of their request. Since that time, SBC has met with Vonage to work out the logistics. Verizon, the largest Bell, has also committed to testing just such a system. Qwest, the smallest of the Bells, is also considering its options.

Of the four Bells, Qwest appears to be the furthest along. It already successfully trialed just such access for Vonage emergency calls in Kings County, Wash., and is now weighing its options. BellSouth seems the most averse to the idea. "We haven't heard a peep," Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said.

"911 capability is critical to our communities and needs to be carefully maintained by the providers that use it," BellSouth spokesman Todd Smith wrote in an e-mail. "There are existing procedures to connect to the 911 network today, which several providers, including some that offer VoIP services, now utilize. Vonage has opted not to follow existing practices and has requested non-standard support. As with any other special requests, BellSouth will work with Vonage to see what can be done."