The Federal Communications Commission yesterday ordered providers of Internet-based telephone services to move quickly to ensure reliability of 911 emergency calls.
In a unanimous vote, the agency gave service providers 120 days to certify that subscribers who call 911 will be able to reach a 911 emergency center. And the new 911 system must give dispatchers quick access to two key pieces of information: the number the caller is phoning from and that caller's physical location.
Before voting, the commissioners listened as a Florida woman recalled a day last March when her Internet phone kept her from getting help for her dying daughter. The woman, Cheryl Waller of Deltona, Fla., told the commissioners that "120 days is seven days longer than my daughter lived." Julia Waller "died at 113 days old because I [could not] reach an operator," Waller said.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin - who began campaigning for the 911 rules upon taking the agency's top spot in March-said tragedies such as this one are unacceptable.
"Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that he or she will be connected to an emergency operator," Martin said.
The Internet phone service, known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP, is expected to grow exponentially in coming years as major telephone and cable companies jump into a market pioneered by upstarts such as Vonage. It offers telephone service at a bargain price, often a flat rate and also gives customers their choice of area codes.
U.S. subscribers to Internet-based telephone service are projected to grow to 27 million by the end of 2009, according to an April forecast released by IDC, the Framingham, Mass.-based technology and telecommunications research firm.
As its popularity expands, its ability to provide reliable 911 service has increasingly become an issue, though it raises technological challenges for providers.
"It has to become a uniform standard," said John Muleta, the co-chairman of the communications group in the Washington office of law firm Venable LLP, and the former head of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. "But [the FCC is] demanding a lot in a very short time."
When a caller using a conventional telephone calls 911, his location and phone number are instantly accessible to the emergency center operator. And roughly half the nation's estimated 1.5 million VoIP users are served by cable television companies that already provide full-blown 911 capabilities because they only offer phone service to a fixed location.
The FCC ruling, however, recognizes that VoIP service is portable and mobile. So a person who lives in California, but who is in New York on business when he use his portable computer to dial 911 and report an emergency, must still be able to get help.
Among the firms poised to move into the VoIP market are telephone giant Verizon Communications Inc. and cable company Comcast Corp. Verizon launched its VoiceWing broadband telephone service nationwide last July, while Comcast is still working to roll out its Digital Voice service - using a proprietary high-speed network, instead of the Internet, as its base.
Comcast said it has access to the network, systems and capabilities that will enable it to handle both conventional 911 and enhanced 911 calls the way a conventional telephone company does.
Verizon said it cannot always now guarantee access to 911 service nationwide, because not all emergency service providers across the country support VoIP. The company provides customers with information to help them research whether or not they will be able to access the 911 service in their area, the company said.
Wire services contributed to this article.