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Why 911 callers are left hanging

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Sci/Tech

COMPANIES offering internet-based phone services in the US have been given just 120 days to ensure that their lines provide access to the emergency services, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled last week.

Internet phone services, known as voice over internet protocol or VoIP, have been heralded as the future of telephony, as they promise virtually free phone calls. But the FCC ruling threatens to burst the VoIP bubble. The new rules are likely to push up the cost of VoIP calls, and could also reduce competition by squeezing smaller companies out of the market.

Unlike traditional phone calls, VoIP calls do not need a dedicated phone line. Instead digitised voice data is broken up into packets and sent over a computer network in much the same way as an email, which allows a network to be used far more efficiently.

Last year saw large numbers of businesses across the globe switching to VoIP networks, and domestic consumers have begun to follow suit. But because VoIP is not a traditional phone service, internet phone companies until now were not legally required to provide access to emergency services.

In March a family in Houston, Texas, that had recently switched their home phone to a VoIP service found they couldn't call 911 when they needed help after they were attacked in their home. Two of them suffered gunshot wounds. In response to this, Greg Abbott, attorney general for Texas, filed a lawsuit against Vonage, the family's VoIP provider, on the grounds that it should have disclosed any shortcomings in its 911 service.

"I suspect that the FCC is looking at this from a legal standpoint," says Keith Nissen a senior telecoms analyst with Arizona-based In-Stat. At the moment it is unclear whether the phone company or the government is liable when things go wrong, he says. "The sad fact is that we have spent so much time splitting hairs about what is a telecommunications service and what is an information service that we have endangered public safety," said Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner.

Even if companies do supply a 911 service, the quality of internet phone calls is often poor, potentially causing a problem in emergencies. And because VoIP systems identify callers by the service provider they use, they may not route a call to the nearest emergency services centre. Emergency services may also be unable to pinpoint the location of a caller in trouble.

At the moment only a few VoIP companies offer 911 services, and in some areas no 911 facility is available at all. Some companies connect calls to untrained administrative personnel at the VoIP company who may not even answer the call. The new regulations will require VoIP companies to ensure that callers are connected to a proper emergency services call centre, and also that they are connected to the one closest to them. Companies must also provide information about an emergency caller, such as their phone number and location of the caller.

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