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VOIP 911 Still Trails Wireline

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News Analysis
Light Reading

The Vonage Holdings Corp. service outage this week again highlighted the difference between POTS and VOIP phone services (see Vonage Spreads the Blame). But one of those differences -- the kinds of 911 services provided -- is set to go away over the next several months, VOIP providers say.

According to some VOIP carriers, they'll be able to offer "enhanced 911" (E911) services within a year. E911 service refers to the ability to route calls directly to an emergency dispatcher with the caller’s address and phone number appearing automatically.

Most VOIP 911 calls are routed through public safety access points (PSAPs) -- facilities where an operator can alert emergency response agencies. But it's noteworthy that these PSAPs don't have Data Management System/Automatic Location Identification (DMS/ALI) systems, which allow operators to immediately identify the caller's location.

Some VOIP providers and cable operators offer the ability to subscribe to E911 services. They often charge for the privilege, however. VOIP provider 8x8 Inc. (Nasdaq: EGHT), which has about 1,700 subscribers, charges a $9.95 setup fee, plus $3 a month for the service, for example (see Bye Bye, Bob!).

And even with E911 available, most VOIP providers push consumers to seek emergency services elsewhere. User agreements from 8x8, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and other VOIP providers advise consumers to "maintain an alternative means of accessing traditional 911 services."

“Today, one solution is registering your location with a VOIP provider when you sign up for service so that when you dial 911, that call is routed to a dispatcher,” says Jim Kohlenberger, spokesman for the Voice On the Net (VON) Coalition, a group of Internet telephony companies. “It’s still a 911-type call.”

The quest for E911 everywhere is complicated by the fact that VOIP carriers aren't regulated, so they don't have access to E911 selective routers. So, for a while, each provider must come up with a solution and pass the cost on to consumers.

Intrado Inc. is working on a solution that would route calls to E911 selective routers with what looks like a local telephone number. The selective router would then process the number to a PSAP dispatcher.

AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) expects to offer VOIP users E911 in six to nine months, says spokesman Thomas Hopkins. AT&T’s subscribers must now supply an address and number. "We have found that customers are more focused on the features and the economy of the service [than on 911]," says Hopkins. Most people, he added, have a cell phone for emergencies and "many users maintain another traditional copper phone line."

Vonage, which has about 220,000 VOIP lines in service, expects to offer customers E911 next year, according to Louis Holder, executive VP of product development at Vonage.

Interestingly, Vonage says 80 percent of its subscribers are residential and half of those customers use its service as their primary line.

There are other differences worth noting between landline 911 and VOIP 911. With VOIP services, even E911, the emergency service won’t work if the caller’s address doesn’t match the one registered. Also, VOIP users can’t dial 911 during a power, Internet, or other network outage.

“A selling point of VOIP is that it's portable,” says Kevin Mitchell, directing analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. “You can go somewhere else and plug in there. But then 911 won’t work correctly. You have to register your new geographic location, but it takes days for this to be processed.”

Analysts say 911 will be a big deal as VOIP attracts a wider group of users and more households choose VOIP for their primary phone line. “It’s not affecting adoption right now,” says Mitchell. "But for mass adoption, and to avoid massive lawsuits, this has to be figured out."

"There were a total of 131,000 VOIP subscribers in 2003, a number that's expected to grow to about 980,000 in 2004," according to Danny Klein, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group.

And, though not all VOIP services are on a par with landline 911 services yet, equipment vendors and VOIP providers envision a smarter emergency system. They see one that would identify a caller’s location and route calls to the nearest PSAP regardless of the caller's pre-registered address (see Nortel Joins VOIP Research Project).

“We’re on a pathway to getting to something that is better than the traditional 911 services... The goal is an actual PSAP that is on an IP-based network,” says VON's Kohlenberger.

— Joanna Sabatini, special to Light Reading

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