E911 question for VoIP looms
Dialing “911” and reaching emergency help is almost taken for granted on both old-fashioned wire lines and cellular wireless phones. Great pains have been taken to implement enhanced 911 (E911) services for both wired and wireless phones that route an emergency call to the closest Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and automatically display the caller’s phone number and location.
For wire lines, E911 services are old hat, but the road to implementing E911 services on wireless phones has been fraught with legislative and technical headaches. Most wireless carriers are moving toward implementing Phase II requirements for position location as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.
If the headache of wireless E911 services has been solved, a bigger one has emerged — the Internet and voice over IP (VoIP) telephone calls.
At the fall 2003 Voice on the Net (VON) Conference in Boston, conference founder Jeff Pulver estimates there are at least 100,000 people today making voice telephone calls over a broadband Internet connection.
Further, Pulver estimates up to 40 percent of wire-line traffic will move to IP services within the next five to seven years. Industry leader Vonage communication had turned up more than 50,000 lines by late September 2003 since starting operation in April 2000 and operates at a rate of signing 2,000 customers per week.
However, the newborn industry is under accelerated scrutiny at the state level with sparks flying on both sides. In August 2003, the Minnesota Public Utility Commission has ruled that Vonage and other VoIP providers are providing “telecommunications services” within the state and expects the company to meet the same E911 requirements as do other telecommunications services in the state.
Speaking at VON, Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron argued the scrutiny was not balanced, “No technology ever deployed has come under regulation this fast.”
Citron and others have called for VoIP to have the same maturation period as wireless providers so E911 details can be worked out to the satisfaction of all involved.
Vonage also has filed a petition with the FCC to preempt the Minnesota PUC order and moves by other states to impose a patchwork of regulation.
Vonage offers what it describes as a “limited” 911 service and one that must be first activated by the customer on a Web page with confirmation coming in an e-mail message. The customer must enter in the street address they are operating VoIP service from. Once turned on, a Vonage customer 911 call is routed on the Vonage network to the PSAP or local emergency service provider for the address for the address.
Further, customers must adknowledge that both power failures and broadband service outages will prevent all services from operating, including 911 service.
While the current solution is adequate for Vonage customers in fixed locations, the flexability of VoIP in combination with a range of new technologies is only going to complicate things further. Mobile users with laptops and PDAs provide headaches that can’t be simply solved on a Web page entry form.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) already is trying to figure out ways to get geo-location information in a standardized fashion that can be verified from a VoIP call when needed by a PSAP while protecting the privacy of the individual.
Another alternative floated within the NENA working group may be that VoIP calls from Wi-Fi “hotspots” won’t be able to make 911 connections.