May 9, 2005 10:55 AM PDT
Deadly delay on Vonage 911?
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."
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