Vonage Defends Manually Activated 911 Calling

A Texas lawsuit argues that Vonage fails to sufficiently inform consumers of the steps necessary to receive 911 service.

"Stop. You must dial 911 from another telephone. 911 is not available from this telephone line. No emergency personnel will be dispatched."

Thats the message that greets users of Vonage Holding Corp.s broadband phone service unless 911 calling is manually activated at the subscriber end.

Does Vonage do a good-enough job of telling consumers that manual 911-calling activation is necessary? Are subscribers clearly told about the limitations of Vonages emergency 911 calling?

Those questions are at the center of a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general against high-flying Edison, N.J.-based Vonage.

The suit asks a state court to order Vonage to stop saying it offers "911 calling" and to change its marketing to highlight the steps a customer needs to take for emergency service.

Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schultz insists that the company provides enough disclosure—and reminders—about the manual nature of 911-calling activation when orders are taken for the unlimited, flat-rate phone service.

"We believe we do a good job of providing adequate notification during the subscription process," Schultz said in an interview with eWEEK.com.

"On the first page, when a new customer accepts the Terms of Service, theres a big red box with a clear notice that the customer must activate 911 calling. We make it very clear that you dont get Enhanced 911 or traditional 911 [features]," she explained.

At the end of the order process, Schultz said, new subscribers are again reminded to use the companys Web-based interface to manually enter the physical address where the phone will be used to allow basic 911-calling capabilities.

Because Vonage has no access to the infrastructure to provide Enhanced 911 capabilities, the company has turned to third-party vendors to provide a workable option.

Enhanced 911, or E911, displays the physical address and telephone number of the person making the call, but with Vonages proprietary workaround, the 911 call is routed to the nearest PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point). In many cases, the Vonage 911 call goes to a lower-priority line that can go unanswered.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about E911s increasing availability for VOIP customers.

One of Vonages most marketable features is the ability of a subscriber to pick an area code, meaning that a user in San Francisco could choose New York Citys "212" area code. Technology from Longmont, Colo.-based Intrado Inc. is used by Vonage to map a subscribers physical address to the nearest PSAP to enable basic 911 calling.

But, the Texas attorney generals lawsuit argues, the Vonage workaround is problematic and should be modified to remove the burden from the consumer to do the manual activation.

Lindsay Schroth, senior analyst at Yankee Groups Broadband Access Technologies advisory service, believes Vonage will always come up short with 911-calling features.

"Vonage is in a tough spot because they ship the equipment to your house and you have to do the installation and set up yourself," Schroth said, arguing that the self-installation puts the burden on the subscriber to figure out too many important things.

By comparison, cable operators that sell VOIP (voice over IP) services offer 911 calling upon service activation. More importantly, the cable operators send service personnel to the subscribers home to set up the service and ensure that all important features are activated and working.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about the telecommunications industrys efforts to provide VOIP 911 solutions.

Gartner Group analyst Steve Koppman thinks the burden of activating 911 calling should not be borne by the consumer. "The well-adjusted consumer in contemporary society is inundated with these warnings and notices. Vonage does tell the user to do the manual activation [of 911] but Id say the majority of users ignore it without realizing," Koppman said.

There is a suggestion that Vonage could modify its subscription process to collect the users physical address and handle the 911-calling activation before shipping the equipment.

Vonages Schultz left the door open to discussing possible changes but argued that the company is never entirely sure where the device is being used. "We cant force subscribers to use the service in a specific location. Our service is set up to allow users to move and we have a system in place to change the 911-calling capabilities when they move."

"I dont think we are putting the burden on users at all. We tell them twice during the order process and we send constant reminders to people who dont activate 911 calling. In our estimation, were doing what we think is reasonable," Schultz said.

She said Vonage was open to discussions with the Texas attorney general to find a practical solution. "Were up for any suggestions from the attorney general to improve our process. We dont know what changes theyd like to see but were willing to meet with them and review our systems."

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