May 19, 2005 8:30 AM PDT

FAQ: Why the FCC is targeting VoIP 911 calls

Law and order are coming to VoIP 911.

Most Americans take it for granted that when they dial 911 they will reach a dispatcher who can immediately summon an ambulance, fire truck or police patrol. That dispatcher might even dispense preliminary advice for those with medical emergencies. But for the growing number of people who are using their broadband connections to make phone calls--using a technology known as VoIP, or voice over Internet Protocol--that assumption could prove dangerous.

Because of a range of technical and other problems, VoIP 911 calls are often unreliable. After-hours calls in particular may be misdirected to emergency-services administrative offices, where a recorded message explains that the offices are closed and that callers should dial 911 if there's an emergency. What's more, VoIP 911 calls that do reach dispatchers often aren't accompanied by the caller's phone number and location.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission stepped in with the first rules addressing 911 calls on VoIP. The questions and answers here focus on how the system works, what action the FCC is taking and how its ruling will affect customers and VoIP providers.

What is VoIP? How many people use it?
Software geared for voice over Internet Protocol allows an Internet connection to double as a phone line, often at savings of up to 50 percent over what traditional local and long-distance companies charge. About 5.5 million people worldwide use Net phone technology.

Why doesn't it mesh with the current 911 system?
Because the calls aren't routed through the traditional phone system, they must find another way to transfer into the 911 infrastructure that serves the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. That transfer has so far posed technical, business and political hurdles.

What the government's plan for addressing the problem?
The FCC has ruled that Net providers connecting in some way to the traditional phone network will have 120 days to find a way to steer 911 calls to the appropriate dispatchers. Those calls also must include data such as the caller's address and phone number.

Who's impacted?
Until the details are sorted out, it'll be tough to say with precision. Right now, it looks like the vast majority of the Net phone industry--almost everyone that sells some way of calling from a PC to a regular phone.

What other parts of the ruling will be troublesome?
Many VoIP operators say the 120-day deadline is not feasible, so look for lots of extension requests as the deadline nears. Another contentious issue is whether to guarantee Net phone operators access to the 911 infrastructure, which is owned and operated by the Bell phone companies, namely Verizon Communications, SBC Communications, BellSouth and Qwest Communications International. Those companies consider the VoIP providers direct competitors.

Are 911 calls now possible on VoIP phones?
You'll have the best luck with emergency calls made over broadband cable connections rather than those made over DSL lines. At this point, VoIP-based emergency calls are most consistently reliable in Rhode Island, where the state owns the 911 infrastructure and has successfully tested a way for such calls to pass through the system accompanied by the phone number and address of the caller.

What happens to VoIP 911 calls in other markets?
The calls are intercepted by the Net phone operator, which then tries to figure out where they should go. Some operators, mainly cable companies, are able to consistently get the calls to the right emergency service operator, but can't guarantee the calls are accompanied by the right address or a call-back number. Others, mainly smaller Net phone operators, redirect 911 calls to emergency-call center administrative offices, without addresses or call-back phone numbers. The calls then must be redirected to the emergency dispatcher.

What's so bad about reaching administrative offices?
The person answering the call isn't trained to handle emergencies, and crucial seconds are lost in the transfer. Also, after-hours 911 calls are answered by a recording that, in many cases, merely advises people to call 911 if there's an emergency.

How can I tell how my calls are being handled if I am a VoIP customer?
Net phone providers are under increasing pressure to be more open about 911 issues. Most of their marketing materials, whether they are mailed or posted on their Web sites, note the problems.

What is the source of the problem?
There are two major issues--one that's being quickly resolved and another that's difficult to remedy.

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Okay, now the real reason....
They want to suck the life out of a growing business which is what they have tendency to do!
Posted by frankz00 (196 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Your reasoning is asinine
The reason for the FCC's actions is that local governments, running the 911 & Enhanced 911 systems, have been already complaining about not being able to get exact locations from cell phone users and the recent amount of VoIP service users only made the problem, in the eyes of the emergency operators, worse.

In my suburb of Detroit, MI, we have the choice of two cable providers, and both offer VoIP service. Neither is 911 compliant, and I won't use VoIP until it is.
Posted by lfagius (27 comments )
Link Flag
Has nobody thought of this yet?
I can't believe that no VoIP company has thought to have a
section in each customer's record that allows the user to enter
"911 Information" such as Address, Name, and Local Emergency
Numbers that get reported to the 911 call centers (I'm not an
expert but I assume that when u dial 911 it actually gets
forwarded to a local telephone number that u can dial in the
form of (xxx) xxx-xxxx, just like when u can reach information
at 1-xxx-555-1212 instead of dialing 411)

Maybe I'm stupidfying the process but wouldn't that be the
logicial solution? It may put the burden on the consumer to
update his 911 information if he/she moves but that is easily
solved when u tell your VoIP that u have moved.
Posted by dlmtechnology (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Some facts to answer your question
This is not how 911 works. There is an internal infrastructure, with devices called Selective Routers that route 911 calls based on area code. The Big Bells control all access to SR's, except in Rhode Island, where there is already a workable voip 911 solution in place.

Your solution is in place for some providers. The problem is that 911 centers and certain state district attorneys believe customers cannot be relied on to know about this or to enter this data correctly and/or to update it when they move. They have a good point, since many of the reported failures in VoIP 911 have likely been due to customers not filling out the forms properly or in a timely manner.
Posted by caholman (4 comments )
Link Flag
Already solved....
Assumption: VoIP service is unreliable and on a best effor basis, you still need a land line for reliable 911 service.

There is a device on the market called the Sipura 3000. You plug your ethernet connection, phone connection, and land line connection into this unit.

If the power fails, or your VoIP service fails, all calls made on phones plugged in to the unit are automatically routed to your land line.

The device is easily programmable to route any call over either land line of VoIP. Example, route all calls that are three digits long and end in 11 over the land line (i.e. 911, 411).

Problem solved.
Posted by willcasp (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Even Easier and far more reliable....
For those using VOiP hardware. Simply chip the VOiP hardware exactly like cell phone manufacturers are required to do. When 911 is dialed, the phone reports it's SID and lattitude and longitude to the call center.

No more wondering, no more relying on a user or service to manually update the location record. Cheap and easy, because the infrastructure to pass along the location information is already in place. Just an 11 cent chip included in the hardware.

For those who think this is just the FCC being heavy-handed again, tell that to the families of the people who havce already been killed because VOiP can't handle 911 properly.
Posted by (52 comments )
Link Flag
Not all VoIP providers lack 911 access
Cable Telephone providers use VoIP technoliogy, but most have their networks connected to the 911 system. VoIP is just a method to move voice. Traditional phone companies do not have a lock on safety.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Show me one
Not a single VoIP vendor that I am aware of has traditional 911 service.

If you think 911 means having an emergency number dialed for you, you are missing the point.
Posted by (52 comments )
Link Flag
GREAT FUD ... what is this PR from the cable industry?
Shame on C|NET for posting this as an FAQ -- the notion that DSL
is somehow less reliable for 911 is a categorical mistruth. In fact
since DSL comes over copper supplied by the phone company,
there is a better Customer Information Record available to the PSAP
for 911 dispatch.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Cable vs DSL
Shame on CNET indeed. It doesn't even attempt to explain why it claims cable voip is easier to connect to traditional 911 networks than dsl voip.
Posted by caholman (4 comments )
Link Flag
WTF - Who wrote this story, get the facts!
This is the biggest load of bull I've read in recent history. I'm certain that more than one cable operator offers fully functional E911 services. As a DSL provider myself, and a victim of the local cable company, I can assure you that DSL can often be more reliable than Cable modem services. As an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider), we already offer full E911 services to our customers in Minnesota, who choose a fixed location and a phone number from the local area where its assigned from. The biggest problem I face is customers who relocate and do not update our records, access to the address formats the PSAPs want the information in, the delays in the current system providing that information to the ALI database providers, the number of connections required to offer service outside of our local area (>5000), The inability of the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) to accept non-local phone numbers. Wireless operators were given 10 years to think about solutions and they clearly were accepted as telephone service providers from the start. We've only had 2 years or so, and only understood by regulators and big telcos for about a year. (PS: Telcos don't like the independent guys who can steal their customers and provide better personalized service!) Did I mention for less money!
Regulators are frustrated because we can service customers from any location. Doesnt even need to be from the U.S.

OK, back to my ***** letter.
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice to hear someones getting closer...
But if you are relying on the customer to tell you they have moved, THEN YOU DON'T HAVE E911 SERVICE!!

The marketing hype being used by VoIP vendors is nine tenths of the problem here. Stop claiming you have 911 service when you clearly can't grasp what the heck 911 service is.
Posted by (52 comments )
Link Flag
It's all about the money!
In our area they don't even have a e-911 working yet. But they are collecting the taxes from all the cell phone owners. This is just another 'Grab the Cash' tax. If we follow up in 6 months, and they do press the 911 issue, 'there will be the non-working Voip Tax' but yet again no service.
Posted by goodstuff2001 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Life is Filled with Risk
For tens of thousands of years **** sapiens lived and died without 911. Now we think that we can't be without it. It's time to get a grip on reality. Life has risks! 911 doesn't make those risks disappear. It is not necessary like air and water.
Posted by RickyFr (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Can someone explain me about how VOIP processes an 911 call?
Or in other words, If I dial 911 using VOIP,how it works?

Posted by bhags (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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