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VOIP 911

June 14, 2005

A public radio commentary

Many users have moved their long distance phone service from the standard landline to something called VOIP - or "voice over internet protocol", sometimes called an "internet phone."

As the name implies it uses a computer and a broadband internet connection like cable or DSL to make phone calls. Recently, made headlines, and not in a positive way. Turns out many users could not call 911 in an emergency. So, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to give the VOIP providers 120 days to tie into the 911 system.

You might think this whould be just automatic. I mean, what's the problem? After all its just a phone call. Well, the internet phone companies can't just flip a switch to add 911 because it's really a tricky technological problem.

When you make a 911 call, a computer gives the emergency operator your location. This alone presents problems for an internet phone. You see, engineers, in a wonderful phrase, call the internet "geographically agnostic." That is, a computer address exists no where in particular geographically. A landline phone, in contrast, resides at a specific location. Even cell phones have more location information than you'd think because their signals go to a stationary tower. The whole point of the internet, of course, is to delocalize a person: You can be anywhere in the world and still use the internet.

Beyond this problem of locating a 911 call, linking to the current emergency system presents big hurdles. Some of it stems from the problems of fitting a computer into the ancient 911 network. Unlike the phone system, which consists of one standard type of device, a voice over IP 911 caller might be on a DSL line, a cable modem, or a wireless or satellite broadband connection. A nightmare when interfacing with the 911 system designed 40 years ago.

The internet phone companies also have to overcome a political hurdle. By law only "telecommunication services" can access the 911 system, not "information services" as the Feds classify voice over IP. This would mean partnering with an existing telecom provider, who is also a competitor.

In spite of all this, we should not give up on internet phones. In the long run they'll be cheaper than regular phones and will offer enhanced services in an emergency. For example, notifying neighbors when 911 has been dialed, or giving complete medical info to emergency personnel.

I hope the 120 days the FCC has given internet phones to provide 911 service won't put them on permanent hold. Clearly for now one should have a landline nearby for emergencies, but stay tuned because internet phones are the way of the future.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises