SBC Communications this week declined an offer from Vonage to participate in an E-911 trial designed to address VoIP provider’s emergency-service shortcomings that have been highlighted by events during the last two months.

On Feb. 18, Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron sent a letter to all four RBOCs--SBC, BellSouth, Verizon Communications and Qwest Communications--asking the powerful incumbent telecom providers for assistance in helping Vonage tap into the E-911 system. In particular, Citron noted that Vonage has a solution that is working in Rhode Island and would like to implement it throughout the nation.

However, the key reason the VoIP E-911 solution works in Rhode Island is that the state government owns the selective router that serves the lone public-safety answering point (PSAP) in Rhode Island. In other states, RBOCs and other incumbent telephone companies own selective routers that serve multiple PSAPs.

SBC declined the invitation to participate in a trial with Vonage, noting in a response letter that it “cannot agree to engage in numerous individual tests with each and every VoIP service provider. SBC does not believe that proprietary VoIP 911 trials will result in an optimal industrywide solution.”

Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said her company acknowledges that the Rhode Island solution does not a permanent solution but is much better than the current system, in which 911 call from Vonage customers subscribing to 911 service are routed to the administrative office of a PSAP instead of a dispatcher.

“SBC is basically saying, ‘We can’t engage you until the standards process is complete,’” she said. “Our thought is, ‘We want to work with you in the standards process, but let’s get something up in the meantime that is a significant improvement over what we have today.’”

Public-safety officials have criticized Vonage heavily for its 911 service. In addition, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed suit against the VoIP provider, alleging that Vonage does not clearly explain to customers that its voice service is not capable of E-911 functions.

In addition to SBC, Verizon and BellSouth responded that they would work with Vonage in the standards process. Verizon expressed concern that the Rhode Island solution could expose PSAPs to security concerns such as denial-of-service attacks. BellSouth suggested that Vonage become certified as a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC)--something Vonage has fought in court to avoid.

Qwest has conducted an E-911 trial with Vonage in King County using the same system as in Rhode Island, but the RBOC is “just kind of stalling” instead of implementing the E-911 system, Schulz said.

Some industry observers believe RBOCs are reluctant to assist VoIP providers, because 911 is the greatest service advantage their traditional telephony offerings have compared to those provided by VoIP upstarts. Schulz acknowledged the possibility.

“I think that’s what it comes down to, unfortunately,” Schulz said. “However, because public safety is such a critical need, we think [the RBOCs] should rise above anti-competitive behavior.”

If provided access to the 911 networks, Vonage would pay for access and submit all traditional 911 fees, Schulz said.

FCC seeks comment on public-safety spectrum

The FCC yesterday announced it is seeking comments on the short-term and long-term spectral needs for emergency response providers, including whether more than 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band should be allocated to first responders after broadcasters clear those airwaves.

Comments, which are due by April 28, will be part of the commission’s study on the subject. Under the Intelligence Reform Act approved last December, the study must be reported to Congress by Dec. 17. Commenters also are asked to address what they would like to see in a nationwide wireless network designed to promote interoperability and to what extent commercial wireless technologies can be leveraged to address public safety’s communication needs.

Iridium unveils P2K plans

Iridium Satellite last week announced it plans to offer push-to-talk service to the Department of Defense by the end of the year and to other customers during 2006.

Iridium’s P2K solution is designed to let hundreds of users worldwide join a talk group secured by end-to-end encryption. Iridium users wanting to use the P2K service must upgrade their 9505 and 9505A phones with new software and a push-to-talk ancillary device.

"This Iridium service will offer the virtual equivalent of repeater stations in space,” Greg Ewert, executive vice president, Iridium Satellite, said in a prepared statement. “The need to position a repeater station on a mountaintop or a tall--and vulnerable--structure will no longer exist."