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Net phone services get 911 capability

It's hard to imagine not being able to connect to the 911 emergency system, but that's been a problem for the growing number of people using Net-based telephone plans. Until now.

Users of Internet-based telephone services can finally call 911.

Vonage DigitalVoice, the biggest provider of voice over Internet Protocol service, will formally announce this week that it is enabling customers to connect to the 911 emergency system, becoming the first such provider to offer the capability.

"You're seeing the first few steps into the future," Executive Vice President Lou Holder said on Tuesday. The company began offering customers the capability during the last few weeks but has yet to officially tout the move.

It's hard to imagine not being able to connect to 911, but that's been a problem for the growing number of people using the Internet telephony services, a money-saving alternative to traditional phone plans.

The dilemma is rooted in how VOIP calls are connected. They're routed via the Web to avoid the toll roads of privately owned telephone networks, making for lower-priced dialing--about $30 less per month than traditional phone plans.

But the approach also creates headaches for the nation's 2,000 emergency call centers, which require that every 911 call include some information about where it originated. Otherwise, the calls won't be connected. These "location stamps" ensure the call is routed to the closest emergency call center.

Vonage's calls, like those of other Net telephony providers, are never stamped by a telephone network, and the nature of the Internet is such that automatically determining someone's location is too difficult. So 911 calls never got through. Vonage customers who dialed 911 got only a fast busy signal.

Holder said Vonage has solved the predicament by partnering with Intrado, a company most major telephone carriers already use to match a call to its location. Vonage is the first Net telephony service provider Intrado has signed up, but Holder expects his competitors to also sign deals.

Vonage's 20,000 customers will now be asked to provide their address, city, state and ZIP code, which will be kept inside Intrado's databases. When a 911 call is dialed, Vonage will bounce the call to Intrado, which will attach the street address. Vonage finishes routing the call.

Worldwide, there were about 2.93 million cable telephony subscribers in 2001, more than the 2.5 million most analysts were predicting, according to a study last year by Allied Business Intelligence, an Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based research firm. That number was expected to almost double by the end of 2002, reaching 5.2 million subscribers, the study predicted.