Optical/IP Networks

AT&T Adds 911 to VOIP

Competition in the VOIP services market is likely to get more cutthroat after AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) today announced that it is in the process of 911-enabling its residential voice-over IP service.

911 is a crucial facility for VOIP -- and a potential competitive edge -- because many VOIP service providers have lacked the 911 feature for emergency calls (see AT&T Adds 911 VOIP Calling).

The requirement for providing 911 as part of a VOIP service has been a hot topic of late. IP phones are so portable that the location of the call can be difficult to trace, making it hard to implement a reliable 911 service.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and others are working on a project that involves keeping a list of all the places where you can plug in an IP phone. Every jack on the wall attaches to a device with a unique address that can be tracked in the event of an emergency. Another idea is to put radio receivers into IP phones that could send a signal to the network to alert public safety answering points (PSAPs), which handle emergency calls and dispatch services such as police, fire, or medical personnel.

These ideas are still at the drawing-board stage. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made it clear that, while it doesn’t intend to heavily regulate new VOIP services, it will expect VOIP services to eventually conform to security requirements, pay into the Universal Service Fund, and support 911 services (see FCC's Powell: Let VOIP Be).

To make a start on this before the expected regulation, AT&T has enlisted the help of its old buddy Intrado Inc., the dominant supplier of 911 infrastructure systems to telecommunications carriers. A quick look at Intrado’s history illuminates its position. The company was the result of SCC Communications’ $40 million acquisition of Lucent Technologies Inc.'s (NYSE: LU) public safety (911) business unit in October 2000. And Lucent, of course, was once a part of AT&T. [Ed. note: Six degrees of AT&T, anyone?]

Intrado’s intellectual property is a database that connects to thousands of PSAPS across the U.S. “We connect our IP backbone to the Intrado network, and they take care of the 911 call routing,” says AT&T spokesman Tom Hopkins.

This new feature will be available when AT&T launches its new residential VOIP service this spring. The carrier says it will have an answer to the portability problem by then, but wasn’t able to give more details at this stage.

Since October, AT&T has been running a trial of VOIP services, including Web-based call-control features and unlimited local and long-distance calling, in New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida (see AT&T to Launch Residential VOIP ).

Among the standalone VOIP service providers, Vonage Holdings Corp. is one of the few to have announced a 911 service, back in April last year. It also uses the Intrado network to connect to PSAPs across the country.

The desire to have location information in phones also feeds a lot of commercial applications as well as 911 services, notes Stephen Meer, cofounder and CTO of Intrado. But he says it has taken the wireless industry years to address this issue and it’s still not fully implemented. “We could be living on Mars before we get the commercial location stuff sorted out,” he grouses.

AT&T is collaborating with industry groups like the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to further such goals.

— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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