911 service limited on Internet

DAVID CANTON - For the London Free Press - April 30, 2005 Read this on Canoe

VoIP telephone service is a new hot technology, replacing traditional phone service with phone service over the Internet.

VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) has many advantages over traditional phones, but it has one significant disadvantage -- compromised 911 services.

The problem is being worked on, but so far the solutions are not perfect.

VoIP phone service works over a high-speed Internet connection. It has been around for a few years and is rapidly gaining acceptance for commercial and residential use.

VoIP phone service is available from several independent providers and either is now or will soon be available from various cable and telephone providers in Canada.

We have become used to enhanced 911 emergency services. We know if we dial 911, the call goes to a public safety answering point operated by a local police force that knows where you are calling from, can control your call and can immediately relay the call itself or information to the appropriate fire, ambulance or police services.

For various technical reasons, most VoIP providers have been unwilling or unable to provide these 911 services.

London police Staff Sgt. Peter Glen, a member of the Ontario 911 Advisory Board, says public safety answering points are concerned emergency services may not be able to respond as expected by the public.

Those having VoIP phones may not have any 911 service or the 911 service provided may not be the full, enhanced service.

It is important for customers to understand the 911 service they get when signing up for VoIP. Customers should ask questions, such as who answers the 911 call (it might be an independent call centre) and whether it is a service that dials directly to the same location as a traditional phone.

One VoIP feature is that your phone is not tied to a location. For example, it is possible to have almost any area code.

Nomadic service is possible where one can use a VoIP phone and number at any location with an Internet connection. This feature makes it virtually impossible for 911 call centres to know where the call is coming from.

While a particular customer may not be concerned with the lack of traditional 911 services, it is easy to forget that others may need to use that customer's phones. Consider if children, friends or babysitters were unable to phone 911 or had a delayed response to an emergency.

The Texas attorney general recently sued Vonage, a popular VoIP provider, for the state of its 911 service after a panicked, ineffective 911 call from a teenager whose parents were being attacked by intruders.

In reaction to this problem, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a decision April 4 giving VoIP providers 90 days to provide full 911 service for fixed address phones located within the proper area code and have an interim solution for nomadic and out-of-area code phones.

The CRTC also requires continued efforts to resolve all the issues on a permanent basis.

The CRTC also requires providers to disclose the limitations on the 911 service they do have. Providers also have to give stickers to customer to place on their phones so others are aware of the limits of the phone's 911 service.