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Networking

Vonage, SBC in talks over 911 help

Despite initial discord between the two sides, negotiations are under way, a potential breakthrough for VoIP providers.

SBC Communications said steps are being taken to open its 911 emergency services to competitor Vonage, a potentially important breakthrough for Internet phone providers.

SBC on Monday said it recently offered to negotiate a commercial agreement to give Vonage a direct connection to its 911 infrastructure. The U.S. phone giant also agreed to assess the technology blueprints for doing so, according to an SBC representative. The representative did not disclose additional details about the deal.

The two sides have been at odds over the issue. SBC initially planned to trial the Vonage 911 system nine months ago, but backed out without explanation. Then, last month, it deflected Vonage's formal request to lease access to the required gear. However, on April 18, SBC Executive Vice President Christopher T. Rice discussed plans to begin negotiations in a letter to Vonage Chief Executive Jeffrey Citron.

The progress is a positive sign that the two companies are close to finally addressing the hot-button issue of giving voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) operators access to the street address databases and telephone network serving all 3,200 emergency dispatch centers in the United States. The vital infrastructure is owned and operated to a large degree by the nation's top four local phone operators: SBC, Verizon Communications, BellSouth and Qwest Communications International, collectively known as the Bells.

For the most part, U.S. Net-phone providers don't have unfettered access to these systems, so they still cannot successfully route a 911 call to the right emergency calling center or provide emergency operators with the caller's phone number and location.

Part of the reason for the stalemate is the difficulty in bridging traditional phones with those using VoIP technology that lets an Internet connection double as a telephone line. That forces the Net-phone companies into less-effective ways of routing 911 calls. Rather than being routed directly to trained emergency dispatchers, the calls are typically shunted to administrative lines at call centers, which then transfer them to dispatchers. In an emergency, the few seconds lost could be the difference between life and death.

As SBC's move indicates, whatever hesitance the Bells had in opening up their systems more fully to VoIP operators is beginning to fade, however.

Last week, Vonage said it negotiated access to Qwest's 911 infrastructure. The service should be available in the next few months. Verizon also has promised to begin a trial of VoIP 911 in New York City relatively soon. And after initial reluctance, BellSouth, in the last few weeks, has started "making some movement" on the issue, according to Vonage.

Vonage said it is still waiting for more progress to declare an end to the problems plaguing VoIP 911. But "it's a step in the right direction," Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said of the company's negotiations with SBC.