Saturday, September 13, 2008

Emergency calls

The nature of IP makes it difficult to locate network users geographically. Emergency calls, therefore, cannot easily be routed to a nearby call center. Sometimes, VoIP systems may route emergency calls to a non-emergency phone line at the intended department. In the United States, at least one major police department has strongly objected to this practice as potentially endangering the public.[9]

VoIP Enhanced 911 (E911) is another method by which VoIP providers in the United States are able to support emergency services. The VoIP E911 emergency-calling system associates a physical address with the calling party's telephone number as required by the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999. All "interconnected" VoIP providers (those that provide access to the PSTN system) are required to have E911 available to their customers. VoIP E911 service generally adds an additional monthly fee to the subscriber's service per line, similar to analog phone service. Participation in E911 is not required and customers can opt-out or disable E911 service on their VoIP lines, if desired. VoIP E911 has been successfully used by many VoIP providers to provide physical address information to emergency service operators.

One shortcoming of VoIP E911 is that the emergency system is based on a static table lookup. Unlike in cellular phones, where the location of an E911 call can be traced using Assisted GPS or other methods, the VoIP E911 information is only accurate so long as subscribers are diligent in keeping their emergency address information up-to-date. In the United States, the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 leaves the burden of responsibility upon the subscribers and not the service providers to keep their emergency information up to date.

A tragic example of a miscommunication with VoIP is the death of 18-month-old Elijah Luck in Calgary, Canada. In an emergency, 911 services were called. An ambulance was sent to the former home of the Lucks. The VoIP telephone company knew the correct address, as they were paying their bill from the correct current billing address the company had on record. "It's up to subscribers to ensure the company has up-to-date contact information" was the response from the VoIP company. After about a half hour wait, the Lucks called from a neighbor's land line, whereupon emergency services arrived in six minutes. Elijah Luck was pronounced dead at the Alberta Children's Hospital.[10]

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