The Three-Digit Hurdle

It's a problem one VoIP provider says he loses sleep over. The big barrier to widespread Voice over IP acceptance in the United States isn't voice quality or internet latency. Instead, it's three simple digits that every phone user in the country knows well: 9-1-1.

The largest hurdle to widespread Voice over IP acceptance in the United States isn't voice quality or internet latency. Instead, it's three simple digits that every phone user in the country knows well: 9-1-1.

The fundamental question is simple: How does an internet phone user tap into a 9-1-1 system that is designed from the ground up for a landline world?

Unfortunately, there's no simple answer. VoIP providers have yet to come up with an industry-wide standard of how to offer emergency services.  And the pressure to come up with an effective plan to address emergency service concerns is mounting.

Last week, during the much-hyped Federal Communication Commission public hearings on VoIP, 9-1-1 was front-and center in the arguments in favor of some form of government regulation of IP telephony.

Today, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), a group representing emergency service operators, issued a press release contending that VoIP "will have a serious and negative impact on the provisioning of 911 emergency communications" and demanding "enforceable regulation . . . to ensure that solutions are sufficient to satisfy the public interest."

The lack of adequate 9-1-1 services in the internet phone space even has VoIP operators worried.

"This is the one thing I lose sleep over," said Ravi Sakaria, Chief Executive Officer of VoicePulse, a New Jersey-based VoIP provider.  "Companies in our industry have a moral imperative to come up with a workable solution."

Pick up a phone, dial 9-1-1 and the cavalry comes riding in to the rescue. It would seem easy, right? 

Wrong.

If anything is clear it is that 9-1-1 services present a mountain of a challenge to VoIP operators. Whether they respond to the challenge effectively could be a major factor to the viability of IP telephony.

9-1-1 in the Old and New World 

When a phone user in the standard telephone universe picks up a phone and dials 9-1-1, the call is routed through switches and arrives at a Public Safety Access Point (PSAP) that is closest to the emergency caller. 

In most cases, the caller's address pops up on a screen so, even if the caller is unable to communicate, an emergency response team knows where assistance may be needed.  Since each land line’s phone number is geographically traceable, the process makes sense and there is usually successful communication between a person in an emergency and the proper PSAP.

That's not necessarily the case with VoIP, which, in using the Internet to originate phone calls, is unrooted and not tied to specific addresses.

Of the major residential VoIP providers today, New Jersey-based Vonage is the only one that offers a 9-1-1-style of emergency service.

"We use consumer information to determine the location of the caller." Louis Holder, executive VP of product development for Vonage, said. "The call is then forwarded to the closest PSAP" based on address information the user provides the company.

Holder admits that the call forwarding service isn't perfect and there is the possibility that information isn't updated or that a caller isn’t at the location listed in their consumer file.  Holder said that Vonage is working with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a 9-1-1 advocacy group, and Intrado, a company that offers 9-1-1 technological services, towards a solution that will piggy-back VoIP callers directly onto the existing 9-1-1 system.

Last week, the VON Coalition, a trade industry organization backed by a few VoIP providers, including Vonage, struck a non-binding preliminary agreement with NENA to implement industry-wide 9-1-1 or emergency services next year.   The agreement calls for an interim emergency services system by May 2004 and for a complete solution by the end of next year.

But in its press release, the APCO called the agreement unacceptable because "it takes a 21 st century technology (IP telephony) and shoves it into a 1960’s method of reporting life-threatening emergencies."

The FCC has hinted that it would step into the debate on VoIP emergency services as it did in 1968, when it implemented the 9-1-1 national emergency service on landline service after years of debating the issue.  To the FCC, the use of telephones to respond to emergencies required an industry-wide standard. 

With VoIP poised to take off in a big way, the FCC and the industry find themselves in a similar position. And there is plenty of evidence that the FCC's previous "hands-off" position with regards to the internet is likely to be softened in the case of VoIP.

"'Hands off' treatment [of VoIP] could mean we are undercutting the safety of consumers," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein during a special FCC hearing on VoIP last week. Adelstein's view was echoed by other commissioners.

This doesn't sit well with some in the industry.

Could Regulation Backfire?

Although committed to offering emergency services to VoicePulse customers, Sakaria doesn't agree with a mandated implementation plan, arguing that it is dangerous on two fronts. 

First of all, Sakaria said, forcing 9-1-1 regulation today would stifle an innovative market that has benefited from competition.

"Setting a timeframe of six months is an admirable goal," Sakaria says.  "But, It has the effect of creating barriers to innovation and of entry [into VoIP] by smaller players."

Secondly, Sakaria maintains that rushing into a mandated emergency service plan does not guarantee consumers will be any safer.

"A rushed 9-1-1 service will look an awful lot like a speed dial to local police," he said. "It wouldn't be a real 9-1-1 service that connects you directly to the proper PSAP. Is that any more safe?  It could be dangerous." 

Sakaria says that instead of setting timelines, regulators should let innovators within the industry develop 9-1-1 service solutions.  At some point, he believes, a standard that is both effective and popular with consumers would emerge.

"The ultimate solution to emergency service issues should come out of a competitive and open market," Sakaria said.

Other industry leaders believe that regulations mandating an effective emergency service plan on the part of VoIP providers are justified.

"Regulation isn't always bad," said Jeffery Williams, President of Broadvox Direct, a residential VoIP provider with plans to launch later this month. "It keeps irresponsible companies out of the industry and gives a solid foundation to service."

Broadvox Direct plans to offers a 9-1-1 service to 90 percent of its customers in its 28-state coverage area soon after it begins to provide service. But, unlike other independent VoIP providers, Broadvox Direct has a leg up on emergency services: Its parent company, Broadvox, is a traditional phone line carrier with direct access to 9-1-1 service.

Looming in the background of the 9-1-1 morass is the clout big telephone companies like SBC, AT&T and Verizon will soon have on the matter. All have recently gotten into the VoIP game and all have a stake in seeing some sort of regulation of emergency services develop.

The larger companies' standard telephone operations are highly regulated and the current lack of VoIP regulation leaves the Baby Bells pondering how to proceed in unfamiliar unregulated territory.

"It’s time for the commission to tackle public policy," said Dorothy Attwood, SBC's Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory and Strategy Implementation, following last week's FCC VoIP forum. "There are still concerns about how we are going to manage 9-1-1 questions."

A High-Tech Solution

Regulated or not, 9-1-1 services will come into play for all companies relatively soon.  At some point the portability of VoIP phones will become irrelevant and a solution that combines various technologies to pinpoint a caller's location will be available across the industry.

Rick Jones, operations issues director for NENA, says that some form of GPS will most likely be developed. 

"We'll be able to generate coordinates for emergency calls," Jones said.

Broadvox Direct's Williams agrees. "9-1-1 call will be handed off to PSAPs that will be able to track the call to within a couple of meters, using GPS and triangulation like cell phones use now," he said.

Adopting a cell phone-like approach to VoIP emergency services, however, will not be totally effective, say some 9-1-1 systems executives.

"With wireless, it's a lot easier," says Monica Marics, Director of Emerging Markets at Intrado, a 9-1-1 systems developer with a number of VoIP providers. "Calls are bouncing off antennas and that allows triangulation. For GPS to work, you have to be in line with a satellite. In some cases GPS will be helpful. At other times, maybe internet service providers will be able to help us [geographically locate] calls."

How will 9-1-1 in VoIP be Different?

While industry leaders differ on how to get to a standard 9-1-1 service, they do agree that 9-1-1 will be completely changed by VoIP – and for the better.

"The eventual solution of 9-1-1 service will be more robust in VoIP compared to traditional telephony," said VoicePulse's Sakaria.

"VoIP offers a tremendous opportunity for the redesign of 9-1-1," said NENA's Jones.  "If I'm at the scene of a medical emergency or a hazardous material accident, I will be able to send pictures through a [VoIP] 9-1-1 network."

Vonage's Holder says a VoIP 9-1-1 solution will be able to offer more detailed vital information than current services. "If PSAPs are equipped with IP technology, emergency call centers will be able to receive all kinds of personal information — medical records, phone numbers, addresses, and  whether or not the caller owns a gun." Holder said.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Intrado's Marics.  "Soon 9-1-1 services could jump to internet chat rooms.  9-1-1 will be the model for extending emergency services to any kind of device that communicates: From phones to your Blackberry email pager."

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