Perhaps the only remaining deterrent to consumer adoption of VoIP is the belief that Emergency 911 calling services do not work well with the technology. While this may have been true in VoIP’s earliest days, it is certainly not the case now.
In the US, there are plenty of E911 options available that permit VoIP users to abandon their landline with little fear that vital emergency services are unavailable. And, in some cases, VoIP-specific E911 can provide more robust emergency services than any of the large incumbent carriers.
Of course, E911 requires no customer action with landlines and with many VoIP-hybrids offered by the major cable television providers. If the phone service is working, then E911 is working.
But with VoIP providers such as VoicePulse and others, getting E911 to work takes a small bit of effort: A customer must associate a physical address with their service, easily and quickly done on the provider’s web site. VoicePulse offers E911 calling with the company’s well-regarded low-cost consumer plans, and asks the customer to enter their physical address where emergency services can be dispatched as part of the sign-up process.
The one potential drawback to remember, though, is that while VoIP is mobile, E911 is not. You can take a VoIP adaptor to a different location, plug it into an internet-connected router, and start making phone calls. But if you dial 911 from the new location, a dispatcher will be sending soon-to-be-angry emergency crews to the address associated with your service, not where you are.
While its currently free calling service has become very popular, Google makes it very clear to its customers that its Google Voice service offers no E911 coverage. Still, Google Voice can easily be supplemented with very inexpensive E911 coverage. The easiest way to do so is to install an OBi100 or OBi110 manufactured by Obihai Technology, the only analog telephone adaptor on the market that can be used directly with Google Voice, and to sign up with a low-cost “a-la-carte” E911 service by companies such as Anveo ($0.80/mo.) or Callcentric ($1.50/sign up; $1.50/mo.).
Using Google Voice and the Obihai adapter (less than $50), a U.S.-based home can receive full fledged telephone service, including voice mail, call forwarding, and E911 calls, for less than $10 a year. Even whittling down a traditional landline carrier’s plan to its barest essentials costs more than 40 times as much.
Even at its extremely low-cost, Anveo offers E911 capabilities not possible over landlines. Denis Chukhryaev, Anveo’s founder and CEO, points out that the company’s “Emergency Dispatch Notification,” a $3.99/mo service that, besides contacting emergency dispatchers, can also send notification to a remote user in the event of a 911 call. For example, Chukhryaev points out, a business owner away from the office can be immediately alerted, via a phone call, email SMS or IM, if an emergency call is made at the workplace.
As part of their $0.80 cent service, Anveo allows its customers to use their browser to select between multiple locations to send emergency services to, allowing the user to transport a VoIP device between, for example, a home, an office and a vacation home. While this raises the possibility of user error (for example, forgetting to reset a location before an emergency), Chukhryaev says the company has not experienced a single misdirected emergency call — which would cost the company $75 — in the five years Anveo has been in service.
VoicePulse CEO Ravi Sakaria says the company is working on ways “to “to move emergency communications away from a decades old approach.”
Sakaria envisions a complete end-to-end IP-based emergency system, where a VoIP carrier maintains user-specific information in a database. “A call comes in to 911, and a VoIP provider can instantly forward the address attached to the incoming call, and also things like recent medical history, drug allergies, the age of residents at the location, the exact physical location on a property, (like a back-yard cottage or a top unit, etc.).”
The limitation is not VoIP, it’s an antiquated emergency calling infrastructure. “It’s time to look at the flip side of the widely held belief that VoIP poses some risk in the use of 911 service,” Sakaria said. “The real risk is that current emergency services, by not moving on to the use of VoIP, are in fact limiting the scope of services they offer.”