VOIPs Benefits Come with Emergency Drawbacks

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-03-29

VOIPs Benefits Come with Emergency Drawbacks

One of the problems facing new technologies is that while they may be less expensive and include new features, there often are subtle differences between it and the technology it replaces.

Sometimes this causes problems—even life-or-death problems—for customers.

Take Vonage, for example. Sure, its VOIP services can be a good value, if you already have the broadband anyway.

But, if you pick up the VOIP phone and dial 911, youll be in for a surprise.

Talk about bleeding edge, here goes:

On the Internet, according to the saying, nobody knows youre a dog.

They also dont know precisely where youre located, at least not usually.

So pick up the Vonage VOIP handset, dial 911 and see what happens.

Unless youve provided Vonage with the address where the service is being used, youre going to spend extra time—precious time—before you reach your local emergency responders.

Finding yourself with no "real" telephone and an unprogrammed Vonage box is perhaps the only time Id recommend using a cellular phone to call 911.

A wireless call may not be answered by your local emergency dispatchers, but the call is likely to be handled by someone close to you.

With Vonage, the network is not able to automatically route 911 calls based on the location of the IP address and route them to the proper dispatch center.

Both VOIP and cellular lose the advantages that come with enhanced 911, which provides dispatchers with information about where the call originated.

Having the street address appear on the screen of a computer-aided dispatch system is useful when children call 911 or when calls come from adults who for some reason cannot speak.

In most places, just dialing 911 and hanging up will result in a police officer or firefighter appearing at your door.

With cellular, there is a theoretical possibility that your call for help will be handled by cellular technology that can determine your location fairly precisely and route your call to the appropriate agency.

The cellular industry seems, however, to be dragging its feet with implementation.

The 911 agencies also have to install equipment at their end, further delaying this lifesaving technology.

You might think that to be considered an "improvement," new technology must do all the things that the technology being replaced already does, only better and less expensively.

This backward compatibility has proven key to the adoption of computers and software.

But it hasnt been demanded by telephony customers, who seem to assume, wrongly, that all phones work the same way regardless of how they work.

Next Page: Vonage in Texas.

Vonage in Texas

The state of Texas is suing Vonage over how it handles emergency calling.

It says the company needs to do more than just tell customers to register their locations for 911 calling.

Texas wants Vonage require such registration, allowing emergency calls to be properly directed.

To read more about the Texas attorney generals lawsuit against Vonage, click here.

Cellular users would be wise to store local emergency numbers into speed dial positions.

I have several programmed into my phone to cover the areas where I drive frequently.

Given the importance of being able to summon emergency assistance, I hope Vonage will start requiring proper 911 setup before customers begin using its service.

Click here to read more insight about the future of consumer VOIP.

The cellular carriers, meanwhile, need to invest in improving mobile 911, and in convincing emergency organizations to buy the equipment necessary for dispatches to receive location information from cellular devices.

Its always important to watch out for the unintended consequences that arise when new technologies dont behave like what were used to.

These consequences, as weve learned from the Vonage case, are potential killers.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. Before joining eWEEK.com, David was executive editor of ZDNet AnchorDesk and has been a columnist for PC World, ComputerWorld and other publications. Former executive producer of DEMO and other industry events, he also operates a technology consulting and event management business. A full bio and contact information may be found on his Web site, www.coursey.com.

Rocket Fuel