AT&T has submitted a proposal known as Heartbeat to the FCC that the company said is designed to help ensure that even nomadic customers of its CallVantage voice-over-IP (VoIP) service have updated address information when making 911 calls.

Many VoIP services let customers take their phones with them, which lets them continue to make and receive calls at given phone number, as long as they can access a broadband connection. While this feature is attractive to customers, it means that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) cannot be certain of a user’s location when a 911 call is made.

To date, most VoIP providers simply have had told customers to manually register their new location when they move the VoIP phone, but the customers frequently fail to do so. AT&T’s “innovative” solution also requires a manual registration, but the customer would be required to update his information prior to making a call after unplugging the phone. Until this registration is completed, the CallVantage customer would not be able to make a non-emergency call.

“Thus, as a result of the Heartbeat solution, the customer will be required to register a new address when the service is used nomadically,” AT&T Vice President Robert Quinn wrote in a letter to the FCC.

Although the AT&T proposal represents the first attempt to prompt VoIP customers to update their address, the system cannot assure that the address submitted is accurate. Customers who refuse to update their address will be able to make 911 calls, but the call will be routed to the PSAP associated with their last known address—a location that may not be accurate at the time of the emergency call.

Lee Moore, a 911 consultant, said he believes the Heartbeat solution may be a good “interim” step for PSAPs, because it would make it more likely that 911 call-takers would have an accurate address. A special designation notifying the PSAP that a 911 call was coming from a non-registered phone also would be helpful, he said.

“It would be nice if AT&T could say, ‘Hey, this is coming from an unverified address.’ That’s important information,” Moore said.

While the Heartbeat solution represents a step in the right direction for PSAPs, Moore said customers may not like the AT&T proposal.

“They may have a customer-service issue with that, because people could have to go online a lot [to update their address information],” Moore said, noting that address registration would be needed every time the phone was unplugged or there was a power outage.

Such a scenario could be particularly frustrating for a youngster who may not know the street address of the phone and would not be able to restore service if power was lost to the VoIP phone, Moore said.