Government Technology

Looking for an Answer

June 27, 2005 By

Developing emergency 911 services for wireless callers has been a long, arduous trip -- and just when a glimmer of light appears at the tunnel's end, a promising new technology threatens to take us right back to the beginning.

Many consumers are replacing their traditional residential wireline phone service with VoIP, which allows them to make calls over the Internet. It offers unlimited local and long distance calling for a low price, and gives subscribers mobility -- they can take their home or office number virtually anywhere. Unfortunately VoIP is causing trouble for the new service providers, for public safety answering points (PSAPs) where 911 calls are answered, and for policy-makers in state and federal government.

In mid-May, the FCC ruled that within four months, VoIP providers must give the same emergency 911 capabilities as traditional and wireless service -- this means providing the location and call-back number of people requesting assistance via 911, regardless of the calls' origins.

That's going to be difficult considering the nature of VoIP, which does away with the concept of a "home number."

While the VoIP/911 interface could be a more treacherous ride than the wireless one, recent developments allude to a solution in the works.

All Over Again
The situation, from a 911 perspective, is reminiscent of the migration to wireless phones and the chaos that ensued for PSAPs trying to provide enhanced 911 (E911) services for wireless customers.

To the wireless world, E911 means automatic location information (ALI) and a call-back number for every wireless caller requesting emergency services via 911. The FCC requires that PSAPs be able to locate wireless callers within 50 to 300 meters of their location.

Should the same be required for VoIP phone service?

VoIP can be a boon to businesses because staff members aren't confined to a certain location. "One advantage of VoIP is the mobility of it," said Dan Hawkins, manager of the Public Safety Technology Program for the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (SEARCH). "I can move to a different office, and my extended company may be across town, maybe across the country, and still have the same number and make calls without having to go through all the rigmarole."

If a subscriber moves from California to New York, he or she could retain the California number, including area code, with minimum fuss.

The advantage of mobility, however, could become a liability should the user need emergency services via 911.

When a 911 operator receives a call from a landline, the caller's number and approximate location automatically pop up on the operator's screen, but the system assumes the caller is calling from "home."

When a VoIP subscriber calls 911, if an address appears at all, there is no guarantee the caller is calling from that location.

Pinning the Tail
VoIP providers need only a customer's IP address, not a home address, to provide service. "With the wireless network, there is physical information associated with that handset because it knows what tower it's connected with. That tower has a physical address or place. IP addresses work differently. IP addresses can be assigned anywhere," said Brooke Schulz, a spokeswoman for VoIP provider Vonage.

Until now, VoIP customers wanting 911 services had to register for those services with their VoIP provider by supplying the calling number and a physical address after installation -- that's the only way customers can get 911 services in most areas.

This practice spurred a lawsuit in Texas, filed on behalf of a family who tried to call 911 via a Vonage VoIP hookup. The family received a recording because they hadn't registered their physical address after installation. The suit alleges that Vonage didn't make it clear enough that customers must register to receive 911 services. In a similar

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