Tech Industry

Deadly delay on Vonage 911?

Florida couple claims precious seconds lost trying to summon help on their Vonage 911 line may have led to their child's death.

A Florida family says inadequacies in Vonage's 911 Net phone service played a role in the death of their 3-month-old daughter, one of several such claims that have drawn increasing attention to a sensitive regulatory issue.

The family's complaint, reported last week on a Florida TV news station, comes just days before U.S. telephone regulators are likely to force Vonage and all other Net phone operators to dramatically improve their emergency calling services.

Cheryl Waller of Deltona, Fla., a recent convert to Vonage, told WESH-Channel 2 that in March she dialed 911 to get help when her daughter, Julia, stopped breathing, but instead heard a recorded voice informing her that the sheriff's department's administrative offices were closed. The few seconds it took for Waller to run to a neighbor's to get help may have cost Julia her life, she told the TV station.

Waller's complaint is similar to one Vonage faces in Texas, where a

Concern generated by the events in Houston and Florida highlights potential problems with the circuitous route Net phone 911 calls actually take. Rather than putting callers through directly to a dispatcher, the service sometimes redirects them to the dispatch center's administrative offices, which typically are closed. Another drawback is that Net phone 911 calls are not accompanied by the caller's address and phone number.

"We are starting to get a lot of these calls on nonemergency lines," an emergency services dispatcher wrote after signing a petition the Wallers created to urge lawmakers to force Vonage and other Net phone operators to fix their 911 problems.

The problem for Net phone operators, which lets Internet connections double as home phone lines, is mainly one of access to the nation's 911 infrastructure, which is owned by the four giant local phone companies known as the Bells. The situation appears to be quickly resolving itself, however, because the Bells have begun striking access deals with Vonage in the last few weeks.

In an interview last week before news of the Florida girl's death surfaced, Vonage Chief Financial Officer John Rego said that as a result of the new FCC rules, Net phone operators will likely have until the end of the year to have a fully functioning 911 service.

"That's a little aggressive," Rego said. "It took cellular operators 10 years to get there."