May 9, 2005 10:55 AM PDT

Deadly delay on Vonage 911?

A Florida family says inadequacies in Vonage's 911 Net phone service played a role in the death of their 3-month-old daughter, one of several such claims that have drawn increasing attention to a sensitive regulatory issue.

The family's complaint, reported last week on a Florida TV news station, comes just days before U.S. telephone regulators are likely to force Vonage and all other Net phone operators to dramatically improve their emergency calling services.

Cheryl Waller of Deltona, Fla., a recent convert to Vonage, told WESH-Channel 2 that in March she dialed 911 to get help when her daughter, Julia, stopped breathing, but instead heard a recorded voice informing her that the sheriff's department's administrative offices were closed. The few seconds it took for Waller to run to a neighbor's to get help may have cost Julia her life, she told the TV station.

Waller's complaint is similar to one Vonage faces in Texas, where a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Greg Abbott claims that the operator misleads subscribers about the reliability of its 911 service, a claim Vonage denies. The suit was filed after an incident in March in which a Houston teenager using Vonage service allegedly encountered problems connecting to a 911 dispatcher after her parents were shot during a robbery. Soon thereafter, the Federal Communications Commission laid the framework for stricter Net phone 911 rules that are scheduled to be unveiled on May 19, according to several sources.

Concern generated by the events in Houston and Florida highlights potential problems with the circuitous route Net phone 911 calls actually take. Rather than putting callers through directly to a dispatcher, the service sometimes redirects them to the dispatch center's administrative offices, which typically are closed. Another drawback is that Net phone 911 calls are not accompanied by the caller's address and phone number.

"We are starting to get a lot of these calls on nonemergency lines," an emergency services dispatcher wrote after signing a petition the Wallers created to urge lawmakers to force Vonage and other Net phone operators to fix their 911 problems.

The problem for Net phone operators, which lets Internet connections double as home phone lines, is mainly one of access to the nation's 911 infrastructure, which is owned by the four giant local phone companies known as the Bells. The situation appears to be quickly resolving itself, however, because the Bells have begun striking access deals with Vonage in the last few weeks.

In an interview last week before news of the Florida girl's death surfaced, Vonage Chief Financial Officer John Rego said that as a result of the new FCC rules, Net phone operators will likely have until the end of the year to have a fully functioning 911 service.

"That's a little aggressive," Rego said. "It took cellular operators 10 years to get there."

27 comments

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Don't people read the warnings?
You know what amazes me about the people who complain that Vonage and other VOIP are costing lives, is that VOIP's inadequacies are well documented - the last time i looked at a VOIP box in staples, or on vonage's or att CallVantage's website, it says how limited 911 service is available, do not use VOIP for emergency services, etc.. What more do people want? Its unfortuante that vonage is getting the brunt of this because its not like its a dirty secret, its a flaw which is out in the open. Its similar to cell phones in the early 90s - 911 sometimes worked, sometimes it didnt, how come people didnt blame Bell Atlantic (Precurser to Verizon) or Cellular One (Precurser to Cingular)? People are just so stupid, and its the people who are doing their jobs (employees of vonage) that get the bad rap.
Posted by explorer5 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I don't get it...
I personally have Vonage service. When I signed up earlier this year it was made blatently clear that 911 support must first be activated by the user and even then it is not gauranteed effective. I mean, they had ALL CAPS in red letters blaring it out to the user in the contract. Then it's repeated on your dashboard. It's also in the FAQs before you even sign up.

It seems to me that Vonage is making every effort they can to improve their service but people look for any excuse to extort money these days. What the hell. It's time people take responsibility for themselves and quit looking for a scapegoat.
Posted by Bob_Barker (167 comments )
Link Flag
No they dont
are you really that dumb?
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
Link Flag
Deep Pockets, More Suits To Follow
When bad things happen to people, they look for someone to blame. If the blame can be put on a party with deep pockets, all the better. These kinds of VoIP lawsuits are exactly what I predicated back in March when the Texas case appeared. More and more of these lawsuits will be brought because unlike POTS, there are just too many ways for the VoIP technology to fail, from a simple power outage to a denail of service. Remember when Comcast had that nationwide DNS failure a few weeks ago?

Unless Congress grants some sot of liability exemption to the VoIP providers, or limits damages, this business will only be provided by Telcos who can offer backup wired POTS service.


They Can't/Won't Guarantee 911 Service
Posted by: Keith J.
Posted on: March 23, 2005, 12:36 AM PST
Story: Texas sues Vonage over 911 problem
Vonage and other VoIP providers can't and won't guarantee that their 911 and regular service will continue to function in the event of things like power failure, router failure, ISP failure, denial of service, etc. Take a look at paragraphs 1.4 and paragraph 2 (very lengthy) of the terms of service. Vonage indemnifies themselves from any damage resulting in loss of 911 access while using their service.

Bottom line is that VoIP companies are not phone companies, so don't expect the same level of service, because you're not paying for it and it's not required by law. They are classified as information providers.

My prediction: More VoIP subscriber damage lawsuits to follow.


Keith
www.techcando.com
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
They shouldnt
provide home phone service if they cant provide 911 service...
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
Link Flag
Forcing the wrong group
Instead of "forcing" Vonage to correct it's 911. Why not require the Baby Bells to open up their 911 databases to the VOIP provider. Of course, they should be able to charge an appropriate fee for the access.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
No cell phone?
Am I elitist to think that you have to be somewhat technologically sophisicated to have broadband and VOIP? I thought this was still somewhat cutting edge.

Why on earth would you have a technology that doesn't have 911 functionality and doesn't work during a power outtage (in Florida, no less) without some kind of safety net?

I've got an eleven-month-old, so it physically hurts for me to hear of someone losing someone so little, but I hardly understand how they can really blame anyone but themselves.
Posted by TV James (680 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Packet8 VoIP has Enhanced 911
I have Packet8 and they have enhanced 911 which goes right through to the 911 call center and pop-ups up a dispay to the call center with address info of where the call is coming from. It's only a couple of dollars a month extra.

If you want more details.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.packet8.net/about/e911.asp" target="_newWindow">http://www.packet8.net/about/e911.asp</a>
Posted by (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vonage Forum User Have a Different View
Readers of the Vonage VoIP Forum <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.vonage-forum.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.vonage-forum.com</a> have a different point of view.
In this thread:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.vonage-forum.com/ftopic5689.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.vonage-forum.com/ftopic5689.html</a>
they claim: "The lawsuits, if presented before a jury with half a brain among them will go nowhere."

"Vonage clearly warns people that 911 service may not go to an emergency PSAP in most locations."

Others go on to say here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.vonage-forum.com/ftopic5562.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.vonage-forum.com/ftopic5562.html</a>

"****, he has GOT to be kidding us! Vonage takes you by the hand and leads you through the 911 procedure and constantly tells you "Hey, this isn't normal E911" in big red letters on your screen."
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
bang your head
on my pda @ shorty's In seatown.... we bang our heads .for peace of mind.... and then these real special political types come along... and give out jobs... and send us packing... oh chris! we killed someone'.. bombs away.. '

i rcmembcr when all the irc servers banned aol addresses... ha! aloha steve..
Posted by (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reguardless...
...of what the contract says, VoIP providers are providing telephone service, so they are in fact telephone companies. And because they are telephone companies, then they should be regulated just like a telco, including having reliable E911 service.

Quite frankly, I don't care if you disagree with me or not, but in an emergancy situation, you see the phone, you pick it up, you dial 911. Perhaps people did read the contract, but in a life-death situation, the terms of a contract is the furthest thing from people's minds when they are trying to get help whether police, fire, or medical. When people become hysterical, rational thought goes out the window.

Am I being hardnosed about this? Yes I am. My point is if you provide any type of telephone service, then you need to have a system in place to handle emergency calls...*BEFORE* you start providing service.
Posted by Maelstorm (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
For a utility, yes
Vonage is not a "utility" in the absolute sense of the word. It's an "alternative".

I can talk to people across the country in an Xbox live voice chatroom. More or less the same concept of Vonage. You don't see people suing Microsoft for not having 911 service.

Hell, you could set up a nationwide network of tin cans attached to strings for all I care. The idea of communicating with others remains the same. If you want the security of 911, keep your landline.
Posted by Bob_Barker (167 comments )
Link Flag
Vonage users: test it
I was at my local police station to report a crime. While I was
there I asked the 911 dispatcher (she was leaving her shift) how
to test my 911. She said call the non emergency police number
to let them know you will be calling. No big deal for them.

I did (it got me the sheriffs office) and when I dialed 911 on
Vonage, I did not get dispatch but the local sheriffs office (yep
same one, versus city police where I live). The sheriff said "if you
call in an emergency, we will simply transfer you right away to
the city 911 to take the call." They answer 24 hours a day.

It was great to know what will happen. It is NOT 911 but it is the
cops and they will come as long as you can say your name and
address. If you call and the sheriff is not 24 hours and cannot
transfer, I would get a cell phone or POTS land line again.
Posted by designprofessor (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vonage Terms of Service are very clear
When you sign up for Vonage, it is very clear that 911 dialing is NOT automatic. When you "activate" 911 dailing, it is very clear that it is NOT the same as traditional 911 dialing. They inform you many, many times. This is just another crazy example of the "blame someone else" society.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Maybe we don't want 911 service
As has been stated before, Vonage is very up front about its ability to provide 911 service to its subsribers.

What is next? We can't sell ladders because someone--in their infinite wisdom--has determined that someone may fall off of one and hurt themselves?

Why don't you have the government make all your decisions for you?
Posted by Big Tsunami (29 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You
dont want 911?

And what will you do if you have a heart attack... drive your self to the emergency ward?
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
Link Flag
The cynic in me says...
the Bells are putting people up to making a big hoopla over this. They knew exactly what they were getting into when they signed up and chose to ignore it. My only sympathy is for the child for having such reckless parents. Vonage is not to blame, the parents are!
Posted by frankz00 (196 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vonage and 911
I simple cannot believe that morons are so stupid that they do not have a list of telephone numbers of the police department, medical services, etc., and totally depend on 911.

I do not even want 911 on my Vonage service ... that is not what I pay for. Daniel H
Posted by (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Devil's Advocate
I am a former Vonage customer who has a suggestion for Vonage and other VOIP providers. And, I have some criticism for those who criticize Cheryl Waller ... not to mention the John family who's own dangerous situation prompted the Texas State Attorney General to file suit against Vonage under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

First, I went through the same signup that everyone else did when they became Vonage customers. My signup was back in 2003. And when I signed up, I was told that calls were routed to a PSAP where I would have to verify my address ... and that this was the only difference between their service and traditional 911 service. I was never, at any time, given the impression that I'd reach a recording at a sheriff's non-emergency number (as Waller did) ... nor was I given the impression I'd reach a Vonage recording saying the call could not be completed (as the John family did). In short, in all cases, I was given the impression I'd reach a human being and would merely have to jump through one additional hoop of address verification that traditional 911 callers didn't have to jump through.

The suggestion I have for Vonage is this. First, many callers are drawn to VOIP for business reasons. A portable phone that can be plugged into any ethernet port in any hotel/motel is very attractive. But many callers are drawn to VOIP with the explicit intention of using it in their homes ... with no plans to transport the converter box from one location to another. The former group of people generally neither need nor want e911 capabilities. The latter group of people generally do want them. The solution? Offer two tiers of service ... one with NO 911 capabilities whatsoever and one with e911 capabilities ... both clearly advertised as such ... and let the market choose the tier they're looking for.

One other thing, specifically to those who chastise Waller. She has not sued Vonage nor does she intend on suing them. She's not looking for money, she's looking for change. If you go back to WESH-TV's original story on the matter, you'll notice that Waller specifically indicates that the blame for this problem is 'shared' blame ... both by Vonage and by the FCC. Other comments I've read in other forums echo this sentiment. The FCC knew these kinds of situations would come up a long time ago but chose to do nothing about it. If anything, they should have mandated the 2-tier service idea a LONG LONG time ago ... to satisfy the business customer who never uses 911 on a business telephone ... and to satisfy the home customer who expects to reach a human being when their lives or the lives of loved ones necessitate a call to 911.
Posted by AlecWest (84 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The petition site has been hacked!
Someone needs to fix this
Posted by Bevo33 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
vonage are murderers. the problem with their 911 service is in as small of print as one can get. they brag @ saving tons of $, but don't tell u that u r risking your life to save pennies!!!!!!
Posted by guitarick1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
the disclaimer that vonage puts in their ads is so small that you'd need a magnifing glass to read it. anyone stupid enough to risk their lives by using vonage are getting what they pay for: bad service.
Posted by guitarick820 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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