Technology continues to be our friend and our enemy, as some users of Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service have discovered. Although VoIP lines cost less than traditional telephone service, its users do not have access to 911 emergency services.

But the relationship between Internet-based phones and 911 is about to change with the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) spring ruling that VoIP providers must ensure their customers have access to 911 emergency services. “The fact that the FCC mandated 911 support from these companies is very important,” says Harlin McEwen, former police chief of Ithaca, N.Y., and a former deputy assistant director with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. McEwen currently works with the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police, as the chairman of its communications and technology committee. “We have been arguing that this needed to be done. There had been several deaths related to this.”

To date, VoIP service providers have not been subject to the same federal, state and local regulations as traditional telephone companies. For example, they have not been required to contribute to 911 funds administered by state and local governments.

Because they have not been recognized as regulated telephone companies, they also were not required to offer 911 service. As a result, many VoIP customers could not dial 911 from their phones, and worse, their providers were not making them aware of that fact. The recent FCC ruling requires companies offering VoIP services to provide 911 access but stops short of further regulating them or making them contribute to public 911 funds. Congress will decide those points likely in an upcoming rewrite of the Telecom Act of 1996.

The FCC mandate, which requires VoIP companies to support 911 access by November, came after dozens of reported incidents in which residential users of VoIP service called 911 in times of emergency, only to reach a dead line or a recording telling them that 911 access was not available on that line. In one incident last February, the daughter of a Houston couple tried to call 911 from a VoIP phone after home invaders had shot her parents. When she reached a recording telling her 911 service was not supported on that line, she ran to a neighbor's house to call 911 over the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network. Her parents survived the attack.

The incident drove Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to file a lawsuit against Vonage, the VoIP service provider, alleging that the company did not adequately advertise the lack of 911 support. “This is not just about bad customer service; it's a matter of life and death,” Abbott wrote in his filing.

Will providers comply?

While Vonage and some other VoIP service providers have been working aggressively to comply with the FCC mandate, full compliance by all of the nation's VoIP companies by the deadline might be wishful thinking. A recent FCC survey found that there are more than 460 VoIP service providers across the nation. That number continues to grow quickly as more consumers and businesses are won over by VoIP.

“The FCC bringing attention to this issue is extremely important, but the matter of how to understand this ruling and how it is to be done is left open, and the timing of the mandate is just going to create pleas from VoIP companies for more time to comply,” says James Cavanagh, global telecom network and security consultant at The Consultant Registry, based in Atlanta.

McEwen agrees that the size and diversity of VoIP providers adds to the problem of tracking compliance. “There are so many of these [VoIP] guys all over, both big ones and small ones, that it's hard to know who is in a particular area, and it's not up to the local agencies to make sure these all these guys comply.”

While the onus for compliance may be on the VoIP service providers and the companies that supply and manage the technology to support public service answering points (PSAPs) and other 911 infrastructure, Cavanagh says that local governments wanting to avoid problems should determine who is selling VoIP services locally. “They should be proactive about the mandate. They shouldn't wait for providers to contact them. They should figure out who is in their local area and who needs to comply,” Cavanagh says.

Cavanagh also says that 911 decision makers must become better educated about VoIP technology. He says many people mistakenly assume that calls are actually being delivered over the public Internet, and that the mandate requires PSAPs to be connected to the insecure Internet. In the vast majority of cases, however, VoIP calls, while using the same type of signaling used for data communications on the Internet, are actually delivered over the secure networks of private service providers.

Still, Cavanagh says there is confusion about how to comply with the FCC mandate. In some cases, VoIP companies have been providing access to 911 response centers, but their devices and services are incapable of automatically identifying and tracking calls. A worst-case scenario can develop when VoIP providers supply inaccurate customer addresses to 911 centers because the phone numbers are not ascribed to a particular location or area code. Last spring in New York, a man having a heart attack dialing 911 on a VoIP phone could not be tracked, so the local 911 center relied on address information that turned out to be wrong. Despite waiting more than 35 minutes for an ambulance, the man survived.

Some vendors and service providers say 911 communication infrastructures are sometimes not up to modern standards, using analog technology instead of digital and having insufficient phone line capacity. Cavanagh says that while critics often call for overhauls of the nation's 911 PSAPs and call center infrastructure, the system only can be accurately evaluated individually. “The communications systems in use today should be matched to the environment they are in, and with the user base they serve,” he says. “Sometimes that's very modern, and sometimes it's not.”

Governments plug into VoIP

Long before the troubled relationship between VoIP and 911 access, some governments, such as Ada County, Idaho, had been using VoIP technology for their own operations. In 1999, the county was building a new courthouse complex. The IT team figured that the county could save about $150,000 in communications wiring by installing a VoIP-based phone system.

“Voice-over IP was in its infancy then,” says Doug Heikkila, IT director for Ada County. “The IT team then explored the idea, and took a little bit of a risk, and it turned out very successful.”

In addition to the infrastructure cost savings, Ada County gained call routing and forwarding flexibility using the new technology. Because the VoIP phone numbers are not attached to locations, users can forward their calls to any phone on the network, or to a mobile or residential phone. “People can move to different offices on different floors very easily or even to other facilities,” Heikkila says. “We don't have to do a lot of updating because a number adheres to a particular location.”

Following the original installation, the county decided to convert other facilities to VoIP, including juvenile and public safety complexes that used analog private branch exchange (PBX) equipment. The county assigned the $800,000 job to bid partners White Plains, N.Y.-based IBM and Cisco Systems, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., with the former providing systems integration and project management, and the latter providing VoIP phones and other equipment.

Replacing the old system with VoIP proved more difficult than introducing VoIP into new construction. Ada County had to transfer the old system to the new system without seriously disrupting service. “The [transfer] took place in a phased implementation, and we eventually forwarded all of our existing phone numbers to new numbers in the IP telephony system that we wanted people to call,” says Doug Barr, the county's assistant director of IT.

Arizona's Department of Commerce also wanted to replace an older PBX system in 2002. “We had a Nortel Networks PBX that was 10 years old, and we were having trouble finding new channel cards to install in it,” says Eric Mayer, the department's chief information officer and IT manager. Though the Commerce Department was pursuing its own VoIP project, the state's Government Information Technology Administration quickly got involved. “The state didn't want individual agencies to build their own infrastructures, so we became a beta site,” Mayer says.

The government found unexpected perks to upgrading its telecommunications infrastructures. “We were looking to replace our phone service with a cheaper alternative, but we got a number of other benefits,” Mayer says. “For instance, directory databases that had been on the Commerce Department's corporate intranet can now be accessed on the department's VoIP phones.” Department employees also can use the VoIP phones to distribute voice mail to large user groups, and voice mails received through VoIP phones can be automatically translated into e-mail.

When government calls 911

Still, the importance of 911 support in VoIP services cannot be overstated, even in government installations. In Ada County's VoIP network, 911 calls placed from anywhere in the building can be traced to a specific section of a floor. “Voice-over IP has matured to the point where originally were weren't able to have our 911 calls on Voice-over IP followed, but now we can,” Heikkila says.

However, the 911 contact center housed in Ada County's Public Safety complex does not use VoIP technology internally. “That department will be the last one to go to VoIP because of the critical nature of the service,” Heikkila says.

In the future, people calling 911 centers during an emergency will be able to do so reliably using many different forms of communication, including mobile voice and messaging, and even video calling. “There will be multimedia PSAPs at some point,” Cavanagh says. “But who knows when? It could be 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Dan O'Shea is the news editor at American City & County's sister publication, Telephony.