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VoIP and 911

An article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle stated that the FCC was going to start requiring VoIP providers to provide 911 service. Of course, there was the appropriate Debate on Slashdot about the topic. It is a pretty hot topic — my post got modded up to a 5 in about 15 minutes. My message responded to another poster about how Vonage currently does 911 service. For those of you outside of the US, 911 is basically an “emergency” number. 999 is what they use in the UK, they use different numbers in different countries.

I think 911 is an important service to have. I’m all for having it. However, I think requiring access to 911 at this stage in the development of Voice over IP is a little premature. The VoIP providers are already making strides in these areas on their own without regulations. Regulations should be a last resort, not automatically applied to a service/technology.

Many providers, Vonage included, do 911 a bit like speed dial — the provider looks up your address, assigns the “911″ number to your local
Public Safety Access Point. However:

  1. Not all providers do this. At least the major providers that don’t have 911 service clearly tell you at signup that 911 service isn’t
    provided.
  2. The providers that do it often get it wrong, or at least do not route it to the most optimal location.
  3. You often don’t know they got it wrong until you need it because there’s no way for you to “verify” that it works without, well, calling
    911, which isn’t a good thing to do.
  4. Not all PSAPs are created equal — in some areas, you get to a 911 call center, in others it gets you somewhere else that isn’t exactly a
    911 call center.
At the moment, I think it should be up to the provider if they want to provide 911 or not. Providers shouldn’t be allowed to say they
provide 911 service unless it is done right. Government regulations/standards would have to be defined — assuming
they are not defined already. The standards would be the “right” way to do 911. Anyone not providing 911 as minimally defined by these standards would be forbidden from calling it 911 service. The standards should not preclude any “extra” features.

911-type services are tricky in the VoIP world because, unlike a regular POTS line that is tied to a specific location, the VoIP device
is not. At least a cell phone can be triangulated to within a few hundred feet, but you have no such luck with VoIP. I’m not sure what
the correct solution is. Unless IP addresses can be associated with a street address (conceivably a Cable or DSL provider could do this),
maybe some sort of embedded GPS might be helpful. I can see a customer premises equipment device that contains a small GPS receiver. If you couldn’t receive GPS signals where you were (e.g. in the house), you’d take it “outside” (or some area very close to where you are), and press a “button” to sync up with the GPS satellites. This information would be encoded in your device and sent along with your address information when you call 911. If you move your device too far from the “synced” location, you’d be prompted somehow to resync and update the address information.

That’s one idea, and I’m sure the VoIP providers have other ideas and are working on solutions to this problem.


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