Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) & 911

In early 2004 several companies began marketing local and long-distance VoIP telephone service to consumers, raising several E911 issues.

The service uses an Internet data connection to connect a standard telephone device to another similar device, or to the public switched telephone system, in order to connect to any telephone in the world. The technology has been used for several years by business customers, primarily to reduce the cost of international and long-distance calls.

While providing some important cost-savings to consumers, current VoIP technology does not provide for the transmission of the caller's physical location along with the voice call. If the caller dials 911, there is no inherent protocol within the VoIP technology for routing the call to the nearest PSAP, or to display the caller's location, telephone number or other information.

Another issue involves E911 funding-- VoIP users can arrange for E911 service with their Internet provider, and yet not pay any applicable 911 surcharges for the service. There is anxiety among public safety agencies, county and state-level 911 agencies that E911 system funding could be reduced as more persons convert to VoIP telephone service, and drop their wired telephone service.

Several Internet groups are working on enhancements to the underlying Internet protocols to allow additional data to be transmitted, including data related to voice calls, and specifically 911 calls. However, until the protocols are formally developed and approved, and the Internet enhancements implemented, persons dialing 911 from a VoIP-enabled telephone may not reach the appropriate PSAP, and may not have their location or call-back number display for the calltaker.

Several companies are already marketing consumer-level service, including Vonage Inc. and Packet8 Inc. Both have optional E911 dialing programs, which allow the customer to subscribe for a monthly fee, to submit the physical location of the VoIP device, and then to have any future 911 calls routed to the appropriate PSAP. Both of these companies have Web sites that are quite explicit that E911 service is not included in the basic package, the limitations on dialing 911, and that their VoIP devices operate on AC power, making the phone unusable during a power outage.

However, even with a registered VoIP telephone, there are hazards. If the subscriber takes the device on the road to allow long-distance or international calling, any 911 call from the device would be routed to the registered PSAP, back in the home region of the subscriber.

Right now, several companies are attempting to get a jump on the promising consumer VoIP market, including telecom giant AT&T. They, in turn, are hiring companies to provide the switching gear and call routing services for E911. The very early VoIP providers seem to be concerned about the E911 issues, and are attempting to be up-front about the service with consumers, and to provide the service without any legal requirement.

However, the FCC opened a formal study of VoIP in June 2004, and held the first in a series of forums on the technology--understandably, the first session focused on E911. The FCC will eventually approve some degree of regulation for the growing VoIP industry, no doubt including mandatory E911 service. However, it could take 2-3 years before such regulations are in force. In the meantime, some VoIP customers will find out they don't have 911 service, and some PSAPs will receive 911 calls they can't locate.

NEWS FLASH ! On May 19, 2005, the Federal Communications Commission issued its ruling on VoIP providers.

Interestingly, the push for VoIP service has also raised a positive issue for public safety comm centers--the possibility of upgrading local and regional E911 systems to use the VoIP technology, and to then use VoIP to create a national E911 system. Such a system could allow quicker call routing, easier network management (re-routing 911 calls during outages, etc.), and the possibility of routing 911 calls to and from any PSAP in the country.