Concerns raised on use of VoIP


Your Money

June 03, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG


You've seen the ads on TV, radio, the Web and in print. They entice you to sign up for phone, Internet and TV services from one cable provider for one tidy price. Other companies like Vonage and net2phone coax you to lower your phone bills by signing up for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service.

The message from all of them is the same. Drop your expensive old telephone landline and lower your outrageous long-distance bills.

For those who don't know, VoIP allows you to make and receive calls to and from traditional telephone numbers using an Internet connection. Typically, users place an adapter between a traditional phone and Internet connection or use a special VoIP phone that connects directly to your computer or Internet connection.

The major difference between traditional phone services and VoIP is that traditional lines are generally associated with a particular phone number and a fixed address. VoIP service, however, is generally portable. That means the location of the caller can change since they can use VoIP phone service anywhere they can get a broadband Internet connection.

Since consumers are continually looking for ways to trim the household budget, it's no surprise that VoIP's growth has exploded. With that said, we've heard from quite a few readers who are wondering what, if any, limitations there are to VoIP service.

The A:

I've got two major concerns about VoIP that I find many consumers aren't aware of even though the Federal Communications Commission requires VoIP providers to ensure and obtain "affirmative acknowledgment" from customers that they are aware and understand the limitations of the service, especially when it comes to emergency calls.

So before you cut that landline, realize that if you lose power to your home, or when your Internet connection fails or becomes overloaded, you might not have VoIP service. With traditional landlines, phones continue working even in a power outage.

Yes, some companies have dealt with the power issue by offering cable modems equipped with a battery backup. But once the battery dies, you will be without phone service until the power comes back.

The far larger concern with VoIP, however, has to do with your ability to dial for emergency services and the reliability of the system.

When you call 911 from a traditional phone, the call is usually sent to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) that is responsible for helping people in a geographic area or community, the FCC says. PSAP personnel often can automatically identify your location and direct the closest emergency personnel to that location because your phone is attached a fixed location. They also can automatically identify your telephone number to call you back if you're disconnected.

But VoIP works a bit differently.

The FCC warns that:

*VoIP's 911 call may not connect you to the PSAP. Calls could be answered by your service provider and then rerouted to 911 operators.

*VoIP 911 service might ring to the administrative line of the PSAP, which might not be staffed by trained 911 operators or even staffed after hours.

*VoIP customers may need to provide location or other information to their VoIP providers and update this information for billing and emergency contacts, for the 911 service to function properly.

*VoIP service might not work during a power outage or when your Internet connection is down.

Last month, the city of Edmonton, Alberta, issued a warning about the limitations of VoIP and suggested that residents should not rely on this service in an emergency situation. The warning came after the death of an 18-month-old boy whose family called 911 on their Internet phone. An ambulance was mistakenly sent to the family's previous address in Ontario.

News reports said that while the family had updated their billing address with their VoIP provider, their emergency address still listed the old location.

The FCC suggests that if you subscribe or are considering switching to VoIP service, you should provide your accurate physical address to your provider so that emergency services can be sent to your home quickly. You should familiarize yourself with procedures for updating your address for billing and emergencies; clearly understand the limitations of your 911 service; inform baby sitters, children and guests about your VoIP service and 911 limitations; consider installing a backup power supply or maintaining a second phone for emergencies; and contact your provider if you have any questions or concerns about your VoIP service.

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