Emergency Networks Warn Consumers About Internet Phones

HOUSTON (AP) -- Joyce John was upstairs at home after school one day when suddenly she heard gunshots and her parents screaming. Her mother, faced with two armed robbers, yelled for the 17-year-old to dial 911.

When she did, the teenager heard this message: ``Stop. You must dial 911 from another telephone. 911 is not available from this telephone line. No emergency personnel will be dispatched.''

John's parents were both bleeding from gunshot wounds by the time she realized the Internet phone service her family used did not offer 911 service. It took a frantic 10 minutes after the robbers fled the home for her to reach another phone _ at a neighbor's house.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network and other emergency networks across the nation want Federal Communication Commission regulation and changes to the Telecommunications Act that would require so-called Voice over the Internet Protocol providers to offer enhanced 911 to all users.

The FCC announced late last month that it would develop rules for VoIP. FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the FCC would make sure that public safety is protected, either by the industry as it develops the new technology or by the FCC.

Unlike traditional phone technology, VoIP converts the sound of a voice into small packets of data _ about 50 packets for every second of conversation _ scatters them across the Internet, and then reassembles them into sound on the other end of a call.

The VoIP service providers often can offer unlimited local and long-distance phone service to customers for less money than traditional telephone companies.

But emergency networks want consumers to be aware of the VoIP's limits. The services may prevent them from dialing 911 or transfer them to an administrative police line, which provides no information on the person's location or a callback number.

``If they are unconscious, or they are too hysterical to give location information, all we are going to have is an open line with someone screaming on the other end,'' said John Melcher, executive director of the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network. ``The onset of an emergency, especially a life-threatening emergency, is not a good time to find out whether or not your service provider gives you access to 911.''

Fort Worth officials have launched a similar campaign to educate consumers.

Brooke Schulz, spokesman for VoIP provider Vonage Holdings Corp., said the company has been working to provide enhanced 911 to its 500,000 customers for the past two years. So far, the company has only been successful in providing enhanced 911 service in Rhode Island because of hurdles it has run into with getting access to 911 through traditional phone companies.

Vonage provides traditional 911 service to customers who must provide an address of where the VoIP phone will be kept and must activate the service.

``We all want to get to the same place,'' Schulz said. ``There just seems to be some disconnect as to how we get there and how we get there quickly.''

Melcher says it is important that VoIP providers offer enhanced 911 because the service routes calls to the proper agency, makes the call a priority and provides location and callback details.

Peter John said his daughter was hysterical after the robbery and didn't see a nearby cell phone.

``Not only was medical response delayed because Joyce had to run to a neighbor's phone to place a call that got service, but the assailants are still on the loose today,'' Melcher said of the Feb. 2 robbery. ``Had Joyce's call gotten through to 911 at that crucial moment, who is to say that those assailants would not have been captured.''