At the ITEXPO in Miami today, two sessions are devoted to the 911 issue with VoIP. The first session, at 3:00 Thursday is titled “The Relationship Between VoIP & E-911.” The second session is a panel discussion at 4:00 titled “What's the Deal With E-911?” [See Part I and Part II in this article series.]
Basically the issue is that when VoIP and other mobile users dial 911, their locations can’t be confirmed, seriously delaying or in some cases preventing emergency personnel from responding. GPS chips in cell phones are helping solve that problem, but as we outlined in Parts I and II, there are several possibilities for VoIP, none of them exactly a silver bullet.
Yet it’s a crucial issue. “The positive press friendly to VoIP that we witnessed for the past year will vanish the moment someone is injured or worse because there is a problem with VoIP and e911 connectivity,” declares TMC President Rich Tehrani. “I consider this a stumbling block that needs addressing on our way to achieving VoIP 2.0.”
"We try to make it very clear to our customers that 911 does work a little differently (with) VOIP," Kerry Hibbs, a spokesman with AT&T told the Denver Post last November.
The industry is addressing the issue. Level 3’s VoIP Services announced last month are designed to offer E-911 capability To 60 million U.S. households. The E-911 solution, which is a foundational component of Level 3’s broad suite of VoIP services, enables ISPs, cable companies, local phone companies, long-distance providers and others to build E-911 functionality into the VoIP services they offer to enterprises and consumers.
Other VoIP providers such as Qwest, Vonage and Covad are building E911 capabilities into their products. Qwest has a pilot program in St. Paul, Minnesota and Vonage has worked with Intrado’s technology to roll out one in Rhode Island.
“The entire industry is working to eliminate the E-911 difficulties,” the Post reports, “and with good reason, said Stephen Seitz, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, an advocacy group for 911 systems. The number of residences equipped with the VoIP phones is expected to mushroom from 600,000 today to 17.5 million by 2008, said Kate Griffin, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm.”
How the industry addresses 911 is crucial for such widespread acceptance. “Adoption of VoIP in both business and residential markets is growing at exponential rates,” said the exquisitely-named Sureel Choksi, executive vice president of services for Level 3. “It is increasingly important that VoIP service providers be able to deliver E-911 in order to meet the demands of the market, as well as fulfill important public-safety needs.”
Enhanced 911 delivers address-specific information to public safety agencies whenever someone makes a 911 call, enabling first responders to be dispatched to the scene of an emergency even if the caller is unable to speak or if the call is suddenly disconnected.
The industry’s heading in the right direction, but delivering E-911 is still thorny because many VoIP service providers use so-called “10-digit routing” to deliver basic 911 capability to their customers. Although this method is relatively easy and low-cost to implement, it provides emergency responders with only a phone number and not the location of the person requiring assistance.
Vendors recognize the problem. “In our view, mainstream consumers will not fully embrace VoIP as a replacement for the traditional land line unless they are confident that it will deliver the public-safety features they are accustomed to,” said Donna Lachance, senior vice president of Consumer Voice Services for Level 3.
One hurdle is that no one entity owns the 911 grid. A VoIP provider might have to reach agreements with several different network owners, such as Qwest, SBC and Verizon, to provide comprehensive E-911. VoIP providers are also faced with not controlling the IP backbone or last-mile delivery.
Qwest speaks for the industry when it says it wants the FCC to take a hands-off position on VoIP E-911 and leave the industry and the E-911 community to find solutions. “We want to craft a 911 solution for VOIP, but we don't favor the FCC coming up with deadlines and penalties," Mary LaFave, Qwest director of public policy told the Post. “Everyone knows that the market demands 911, so the providers want to provide it."
But as one wag says, “we're still wondering who's going to pay for VoIP E-911 service. In traditional and wireless telephony, most carriers add a 911 charge to phone bills.” VoIP providers are going to have to either make that highly unpopular business decision or foot the bill themselves.
David Sims is contributing editor and CRM Alert columnist for TMCnet.