Will 911 Difficulties Derail VoIP?

Service providers are bracing for a major sea change as the feds prepare to impose first-ever regulations requiring them to offer enhanced emergency calling services. Some providers, including telecom giant AT&T, are saying they may have to pull the plug on existing customers if new FCC Chief Kevin Martin gets his way when the commission meets next week. Not helping the VoIP providers' cause is the recent death of an infant in Forida, whose parents tried to call 911 on their Vonage line and were routed to a non-emergency answering machine.

In recent months, 911 has quickly become a VoIP industry hot button, and a major headache to service providers who have enjoyed a largely regulation-free business environment absolving them of the need to provide emergency calling services similar to those required of landline telephone providers.

But the climate is rapidly changing and VoIP service providers are scrambling to find solutions to the 911 dilemna. And, with the threat of federal regulation requiring VoIP providers to quickly implement 911 service looming, some providers are saying they will be forced to severely limit their service markets. One major operator, AT&T, says it may have no choice but to pull the plug on current customers.

A recent allegation that an infant in Florida died after her mother could not reach an emergency services operator through the family's Vonage service, and lawsuits against Vonage by state attorney generals in Connecticut, Michigan and Texas over the company's 911 limitations, have put a lot of heat on all US-based VoIP service providers.

Adding to their new difficulties is a recent significant change in composition of the Federal Communications Commission. When led by former Chairman Michael Powell, the FCC maintained a hands-off approach to IP telephony. But in March, President Bush appointed the less VoIP-friendly Kevin Martin to replace Powell, and when the commission next meets on May 19th, it is poised, for the first time, to directly regulate VoIP by requiring providers in the US to offer emergency calling services through traditional 911 systems.

The big problem for VoIP providers is that there is no easy 911 solution.

The challenge arises from the nature of the existing U.S. 911 infrastructure. The service was designed in a world where every telephone number was permanently connected to a specific address and one phone company owned the entire system. It wasn’t designed to provide access to other phone companies. And, it wasn’t designed for mobile users or users with area codes that come from outside their geographic area.

To implement 911 service in the same manner landline 911 calls are handled, VoIP service providers need two things. First, when a 911 call is placed, a VoIP provider must be able to identify the public safety answering point (PSAP) — the location where 911 emergency telephone calls routed to emergency services — nearest to the caller's location. Second, VoIP providers need to instantly communicate information about the location of the emergency directly to a dispatcher's computer screen, a feature known as Enhanced 911 (E911).

Only a handful of US VoIP providers provide emergency calling service of any type, and even those who offer some kind of 911 emergency calling do so knowing their approach is less than ideal, at least in comparison with the 911 offerings of the landline companies.

VoIP's inherent ability allowing users to connect to a service over any broadband internet link, regardless of geographic location, in and of itself is a major limitation. Some VoIP providers, including Vonage, allow customers to register the address where the service is installed. When a customer at the location dials 911, Vonage is then able to route the call to the appropriate emergency service operation.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. On March 24, When Cheryl Waller of Volusia County in Florida tried calling 911 through her Vonage line after her three-month-old daughter stopped breathing, all she reached, Waller claims, was a recorded message at a non-emergency extension of the local sheriff's office. Waller told local news media that she and husband Jeff “lost our daughter because there was no one on the other end and I think Vonage is at fault.”

The Wallers have launched an online petition drive demanding that Congress enact legislation requiring VoIP providers who do not offer a direct connection to the 911 network to display the following warning on all advertising: “911 INFORMATION: This service does not connect to 911.”

The Waller case is the first known instance of a complaint against a VoIP service provider claiming that the lack of full 911 coverage led to death. And Vonage was quick to act, announcing last week that it will offer its customers E911 service through Verizon’s infrastructure.

Vonage is not the first VoIP company out of the box with an E911 solution. That distinction goes to Packet8.

In 2004, the Santa Clara CA-based company launched E911 service for some of its customers, for which it charges a $9.95 installation fee and $1.50 monthly service fee, through an alliance with Level3. Another company that provides emergency calling services in a similar fashion is SunRocket, which contracts with CLECs like Global Crossing for E911 in its service areas.

Packet8 handles the problem of out-of-area numbers by giving subscribers a primary number in their geographical area code and allowing them to add “virtual” numbers in other area codes. While Packet8 doesn’t currently offer E911 in all its service areas — customers in five states and many local rate centers cannot sign up for E911 service — the company is increasing its coverage every month, according to Karen Hong, Packet8’s director of product marketing for consumer products.

AT&T’s CallVantage does something similar through its “Simple Reach,” which allows subscribers to purchase additional numbers in other geographies for inbound — but not outbound — calls.

In the past, RBOCs have been reluctant to open up their 911 networks to VoIP providers, forcing those companies to look for third party solutions. But with VoIP services taking an increasing share of RBOC business and the growing likelihood of new regulatory requirements, RBOCs have started to see E911 services as a new source of revenue and a solution to potential regulatory problems. Reports are that Verizon will be charging Vonage in the tens of millions for access to its 911 network and will also make the service available to other VoIP providers.

“We’ve been doing 911 for decades,” says Mark Marchand, Verizon Director of Media Relations. “It’s a public safety issue and we already have the capacity in place. We are definitely talking to several VoIP providers for several months to develop the solution we announced. We were the first one to sit down with VoIP providers to offer a solution to VoIP providers.”

Verizon’s own VoiceWing VoIP service will be rolling this out to its customers simultaneously with the Vonage rollout. “And there probably will be others,” says Marchand.

“We’ve expanded it [911] from landlines to wireless and last week we expanded it to VoIP services. We’re going to start initially in New York City this summer with Vonage and roll it out to other providers in New York. Eventually we will expand it to VoIP providers in all 28 states we serve.” Marchand did not provide a timetable for the rollout.

But a partnership with Verizon partnership only goes so far. Verizon’s service only covers 28 states — although it does include the three states in which Vonage is facing lawsuits.

Qwest, SBC and BellSouth are all looking to fill those gaps.

Qwest and Vonage have been in talks over a year, according to Qwest spokesman Bob Teovs, and an agreement is close to being finalized. “We anticipate something shortly,” says Toevs. Qwest is already providing E911 services to other VoIP providers but Toevs declined to name the companies.

“Qwest takes great pride in provisioning E911 services to our existing VoIP customers including Vonage,” said Steve Davis, Qwest senior vice president, public policy in a May 6,2005 statement. “We’re gratified by Vonage’s acknowledgment of our leadership in our early and ongoing work with them.”

Similarly, Vonage and SBC are also talking and appear to be on track to an agreement, according to SBC spokesman Jason Hillery. “We’re discussing options with Vonage and we hope to see a resolution soon,” he says, although he would not commit to a timetable for that agreement.

“We do have 911 service options available to VoIP providers today,” says Hillery. However, he says that SBC hasn’t signed up any providers to date.

BellSouth is also opening its 911 system to VoIP providers, the company announced earlier this month.

The company has been in communication with Vonage about the technical requirements and the timing of a pilot project, according to Bill McCloskey, BellSouth Director of Media Relations. “We are ready to meet whenever they are,” says McCloskey.

If the FCC mandates E911 service to all subscribers, the issue of out-of-service area customers may force providers to limit their services.

SunRocket is prepared to restrict its service to those areas where the company can provide 911 service, according to Paul Erikson, company co-founder.

Packet8 is evaluating its options. “If the FCC mandates E911, we would require our carrier, Level3, to purchase those services,” says Hong.

AT&T personnel have met with attorneys for FCC Chair Martin and expressed concern about the commssion stepping into the 911 dilemna immediately. Such action, AT&T officials contend, would force the company to cut off some existing customers of the its CallVantage VoIP service.

“If the Commission were to adopt a rule that required all customers to be provisioned with E911 by a short term date…(e.g.120 days),” Robert W. Quinn, Jr., AT&T VP for federal government affairs, wrote in a may 9 letter to the FCC, “AT&T and other providers would have no choice but to terminate service to these customers.” (Read the full text of AT&T's letter in PDF format.)

AT&T, says company spokesman Gary Morgenstern, is currently provisioning some of its subscribers with E911. The company, Morgenstern said, is exploring different ways to provide E911 outside AT&T’s service area.