Editors Note: Amalie L. Tuffin is a member of the Research Triangle Park law firm of Daniels Daniels & Verdonik, P.A. TechLaw is a regular feature in LTW.
_______________________________________________________________________________________Most of us probably don’t think too much about 911 access. When we do think about it, we assume that all we need to do is pick up a phone, dial 911, and help will be on the way — as simple as that.

After all, the 911 system services about 200 million calls a year, most without incident.

However, as some have tragically found, it is not so simple anymore as new and different telecommunications technologies sprout and flourish. This is especially true when it comes to the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone services supplied by companies such as MCI Inc. (with its Advantage Internet phone services for businesses) and Vonage Holdings Corp.

Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and members of Congress have publicly indicated that they want to encourage the growth of VoIP service, and it is estimated that 1.2 million Americans now use VoIP phones, which provide access to the local public-switched telephone network over high-speed Internet connections, in lieu of landline phones. About half a million of these customers are served by Vonage Holdings Corp.

One reason for the growing popularity of such services is their often lower costs. Another is their portability; many VoIP networks provide service wherever a customer can hook her laptop to the Internet via high-speed access. The exception to this is VoIP services provided by local cable television companies, where the service is linked to one location.

VoIP companies provide services which at first blush seem the same as the old-fashioned landline phone; after all, most customers can continue to use the same phones and get the same dial tones that they always did. There is a critical difference though. VoIP phones are not automatically hooked up to the local 911 call center. Instead, such calls are often routed to administrative offices, as happened in Florida, rather than to 911 dispatchers.

One of the reasons for this has been a lack of access to the 911 infrastructure, which is owned and controlled by the four remaining Bell operating companies (Verizon Communications, BellSouth, SBC Communications and Qwest.) Further, VoIP 911 calls are generally not accompanied by the caller’s address and phone number, as are almost all landline 911 calls in the U.S. today. This is referred to enhanced 911 service, or E911.

Misrouted 911 Calls Have Led to Tragedy

Some consumers and others argue that this difference has cost lives and must be changed. For example, Cheryl Waller is a Vonage customer in Deltona, Florida. In March she dialed 911 when her infant daughter, Jennifer, stopped breathing. Instead of reaching a 911 dispatcher, she was connected to the local sheriff’s department’s administrative offices, which happened to be closed at the time; all she reached was a recorded message. In the time it took for her to make it to a neighbor’s house to call 911 on a traditional landline, her daughter had died.

In another recent case, a Houston teenager was unable to readily connect to 911 dispatchers on her home VoIP phone when her parents were shot during a robbery; the case has led to a lawsuit against Vonage by the State of Texas, alleging that Vonage misleads subscribers about the reliability of its 911 service. (Vonage has denied the claim.) Similar events have occurred in Connecticut and elsewhere.

FCC and Others Act in Response to the Tragedies

On May 19, 2005, the FCC announced that it plans to issue strict new rules requiring VoIP providers to provide E911 service within 120 days of the issuance of its final rules on the subject. The ruling applies to all VoIP service providers which provide access to the public-switched network. It does not apply to those VoIP providers, such as SkyPe, which only provide voice services within their own network.

In a unanimous decision, the four FCC commissioners ruled as follows:

  • VoIP providers must deliver all 911 calls to a customer’s local emergency operator. This must be a standard feature of all VoIP service plans.

  • VoIP providers must provide emergency operators with the call back number and location information of their customers where the emergency operator is capable of receiving it. (About 95% of U.S. emergency dispatchers can receive such information on so-called E911 networks.) The VoIP provider must give its customers a means of updating their location information, whether at home or on the road.

  • VoIP providers must provide all of their customers with clear disclosure of the capabilities and limitations of their 911 service.

  • The Bell operating companies and others must give all requesting telecommunications carriers, including VoIP providers, access to their E911 networks.
  • The FCC’s announcement, which had been expected for some time and which was strongly endorsed by each of the FCC commissioners in separate personal statements, came one day after members of both the House of Representatives and Senate filed a bill (House Bill #2418 and Senate Bill #1063) entitled the “IP-Enabled Voice Communication and Public Safety Act of 2005,” which is intended to accomplish the same goals as the FCC’s newly-announced rules.

    In addition, in recent weeks Vonage has been able to reach agreements with BellSouth and Verizon allowing it access to their E911 networks. Vonage is also close to a deal with SBC Communications and is in negotiations with Qwest for access to their E911 networks. Such access will go a long way towards meeting the laudable public safety goal of having all 911 calls be answered by a local emergency dispatcher, with call back number and location information provided as often as technologically feasible.

    Daniels Daniels & Verdonik, P.A. has been serving the legal needs of entrepreneurial and high technology clients for more than 20 years. Amalie L. Tuffin concentrates her practice in the representation of entrepreneurial and technology-based businesses, focusing on corporate, taxation and securities matters. Questions or comments can be sent to atuffin@d2vlaw.com