Internet Telephones and 911: Emerging Technology – And Emerging Problems

Throughout history, people have reported fires in a number of ways. Watchmen’s rattles, church bells and locomotive rims gave way to Gamewell boxes and, eventually, the telephone. For many communities, the corner fire alarm box has long been a thing...


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Throughout history, people have reported fires in a number of ways. Watchmen’s rattles, church bells and locomotive rims gave way to Gamewell boxes and, eventually, the telephone. For many communities, the corner fire alarm box has long been a thing of the past, and pay telephones are disappearing rapidly. Today, cellular telephones account for many emergency calls. In fact, in many communities, cell phones account for a majority of 911 traffic. Recently, however, a new method of calling for help has moved to the forefront – the Internet.

Chances are you have seen one of many TV commercials proclaiming, “People do stupid things.” Among the 60-second spots are ones showing a child swinging a baseball bat wildly and breaking a sliding glass door and a snowmobiler making a dangerous jump. These advertisements are part of a campaign by Vonage, a company whose primary message is the contention that paying for conventional telephone service ranks right up there with these other idiotic stunts.

Vonage is the largest of several companies specializing in providing customers with Internet-based telephone service. Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) makes use of modern technology to use a home or business broadband connection to make and receive calls. VOIP users don’t surf the web to make connections, but basically use the Internet as their telephone network. In early March 2005, Vonage became the first provider to have over 500,000 subscribers and reportedly was signing up customers at the rate of 15,000 per week. Vonage also was the first such provider to be sued, by the State of Texas, which alleged that Vonage failed to adequately inform consumers about the shortcomings of 911 access through VOIP.

According to Brooke Schulz, senior vice president for corporate communications and regulatory affairs at Vonage, the company may be getting a bad rap.

“Vonage was the first VOIP provider to allow access to basic emergency services,” Schulz said. “We realize that it is not enhanced 911, but we don’t have the access to the Bell networks (that deliver calls to the E-911 trunk lines) that the cellular companies have. We have been working for two years toward obtaining that, and are currently in negotiations, but even the recent FCC actions fall short in this regard. Until this is worked out, public safety agencies should assign trained dispatchers to administrative lines, because that is where we have to route 911 calls.”

To understand the issues at hand, it is necessary to review a brief history of 911 and examine the differences between the way that telephone networks and the Internet work. Although Congress did not officially designate 911 as the national emergency number until 1999, it was first used in 1968. Even then, three-digit emergency dialing had already proven successful overseas. Initial 911 systems were “basic” in that they allowed for a free call from pay telephones, provided an easily remembered number and delivered the call to a public safety agency. Not delivered, however, were the caller’s address and telephone number. The advent of “enhanced” 911 filled this void with Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Information (ALI).

The technology and networks used in 911 was based on the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) because hard-wired phones were our primary means of communication. Area codes and exchange prefixes were assigned to clearly defined geographic areas, and a feature known as “selective routing” assured that emergency calls were delivered to the appropriate response agencies. Although there may be millions of telephone numbers in any given state, database tables could be created to direct this electronic traffic because the location of every telephone was known. Telephones were fixed devices that were anchored in one spot and physically connected to a wire.

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