When the Texas Attorney General announced Wednesday that the state was suing Vonage for failure to provide 911 service to a couple who were shot during a robbery, shock waves went through the industry.
There are lots of reasons why the lack of service shouldnt have happened.
More important, there are lots of places to spread the blame.
Perhaps the only innocent parties in all of this are the two people who got shot, and even thats not completely clear.
First of all, Vonage didnt include 911 service in its basic package, and if the Texas Attorney General is correct, didnt do a very good job of disclosing that it wasnt there.
The company claims that it needed to have its customers register for emergency calls before they could be put through.
The company also said that its impossible to know where an IP phone is located, and in that, theyre correct.
But if you think a little harder about this, you realize one additional fact—Vonage ships out the VOIP interface so that you can install it. Surely the company knows where it sent the product.
Wouldnt it be reasonable to use that as the location for the phone unless told otherwise?
The other service providers and the consultants who have gone on record today saying that theyre shocked, SHOCKED, to see Texas doing this ought to admit that theyre being disingenuous.
Didnt it ever occur to them that at some point, some poor soul would try to call 911, be unable to do it, and be killed or maimed as a result?
What did they think would happen?
That people, even outsiders who had an emergency, would stop and read the disclaimers before dialing?
Of course, all of this rests at the feet of the Federal Communications Commission, which, in a fit of insanity, decided that state laws requiring access to 911 were somehow likely to discourage consumer access to VOIP.
This is, of course, the same FCC that has decided (even if it hasnt admitted to it yet) that state laws requiring unbundled data DSL were also going to discourage Internet access.
Apparently the FCC thinks that consumers would rather pay twice as much and get a voice line they dont need when they want broadband.
After the Texas announcement came to light this morning, I called a couple of E911 providers to get some idea of how hard it would be to simply provide 911 services to everyone, except to those who didnt want it (such as people who use VOIP while traveling).
I cant say that I was surprised to find that none of them would even discuss the issue before next week. Apparently they have to consult with their lawyers.
Fortunately, the couple in Texas who were shot survived.
So far, its not clear whether they understood any disclaimers that Vonage might have provided.
But that doesnt excuse the company from a responsibility to provide basic services to people in danger, and 911 access is one of those basic services.
Sure the states cant require it, but maybe the courts can make up for that.
In the meantime, the most tragic thing about all of this is that its sure to happen again.
While the FCC is allegedly considering a ruling that would require 911 service as part of the basic package for VOIP, the FCC is notable for the snails pace at which it operates.
Perhaps if you have an emergency in 2010, 911 will work, but dont count on it in the meantime.
But if the State of Texas prevails, at least the VOIP providers will have a reason to do what they should be doing already.
And if they dont, a few incidents like this one will do more to kill consumer VOIP than nearly anything else.
But maybe thats what the FCC has in mind all along.