Thursday, August 28, 2008

VoIP and 911 Service

8/28/2008 01:02:00 PM |

VoIP is a relatively new technology that is evolving rapidly. One of the areas that has attracted a lot of attention is that of 911 service when using VoIP. Availability of 911 service is often touted as a major disadvantage to using VoIP service. While this area has been a problem in the past, the situation is changing rapidly. In fact, this may not be a problem at all for some people. This article will discuss the current state of this issue, and try to determine what the future holds as well.

One of the major advantages of VoIP is that it is not geographically based. This allows unique features such as virtual phone numbers and web-based voice mail to be made available at very reasonable costs. This same advantage also causes some problems with VoIP in the area of 911 emergency calls. This is because 911 service is very geographically based - when you place a call to 911, you want to be able to reach the emergency services in your area, not for example the area where your virtual phone number's area code is located. So how are VoIP service providers handling this situation?

Most, but not all VoIP service providers have a basic 911 service capability. In this case, basic means that, given the physical address that you provide them with, they can connect you to a local 911 service operator when you dial 911. This basic 911 service is likely not the same as that provided by your local telephone service provider, however. One big difference is that the 911 operator will not be electronically provided with your physical address when you call 911. If you are able to dial the phone, but unable to speak in a manner that the operator can understand, they may not be able to determine your actual location. Also, it might be that a child is calling 911 on your behalf - they know to dial 911 but are not sure of your address. This is not the same as caller id, as telephone 911 service uses a different, more reliable method of reporting not just your phone number, but your physical address as well. So this is an important distinction when talking about basic 911 service. Also, please note that not all existing telephone 911 services have this address reporting capability to begin with - so you might not be giving anything up with basic 911 service provided by VoIP.

Progress is being made in this area, though. Some VoIP service providers are now offering what is called “Enhanced 911 Service” or “E911 Service”. The enhancement in this case is that they are able to electronically provide the physical location (that you provide to them) to the local 911 services operator in your area. Again, this is dependent on the physical location that you provide to your VoIP service provider. The important distinction here is that if, for example, you move two blocks from where you were previously, you need to update your VoIP service provider with your new address - otherwise they will still be reporting your old address if you place a 911 emergency call. This differs from the E911 service provided by a local telephone service provider in that they know your physical address inherently - they have a physical wire running to your home so this is easy for them to determine.

There is one other area where 911 service is different between the two technologies. In the event of a power outage in your area, regular telephone 911 service is usually still available. This is because your local telephone service provider has large backup generators which provide power to the entire network in the event of a power outage. This may not be the case with your high speed internet connection - as your ISP may not have this backup capability. In addition to this, even if your high speed connection is available during a power outage, the power to your ATA or computer is still absent - and you will not be able to place VoIP calls without these devices being powered up to connect you to the Internet. Also, note that this may be a problem even if you have regular telephone 911 service - if you have all cordless phones in your home that rely on line power, they will not operate during a power outage either.

This pretty well sums up the current state of 911 service and VoIP. It may be that E911 service is available from your VoIP service provider and so there is no problem with address reporting. But since you cannot rely on having an active Internet connection during a power outage, it is probably best that you do not rely on VoIP as your sole way of reaching emergency services. Most VoIP customers either maintain basic service on their regular telephone just for emergencies, or they rely on cell phones to provide 911 backup service. Rest assured that this situation will change in the future - broadband access providers as well as VoIP service providers are fast at work on solutions to this issue.

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