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VOIP Emergency: Internet Phones and 911 Emergency services

In Canada the CRTC has given the VOIP industry a deadline to implement 911 services.

I feel sorry for the VOIP industry. They are being asked to support 911 with an infrastructure that isn't really practical.

911 and regular land line phones

With a regular "land line" phone your local phone company knows exactly where you are. The phone line only goes to one physical location. Bell has the exact address of your house or business on file. When you call 911 Bell sends this information to your local 911 emergency center.

VOIP Lines: The Problem with 911

With an internet phone you can plug your phone into the net at the office in Toronto, your friend's house in Mississauga, or from Tokyo. This is part of the benefits of VOIP - portability.

However, the down side is there is no way for the VOIP provider to accurately know where you are calling from! If they don't know where you are, where should they send the ambulance and police when you call for help?

911: Send Help Where?

Many VOIP providers ask you to fill in an online form specifying where your primary "location" is for Emergency dialing purposes. But is that where your phone really is?

If you live in Toronto and are in vacation in Florida plugged in to the net what good will it do to dispatch your 911 call in Toronto?

When you call 911 on a VOIP line where does your call go? You may be surprised to learn your call doesn't connected to the same 911 call center you'd reach as calling from a regular land line. Instead your call may be routed to a non-priority emergency center. In an emergency precious time may be lost.

There are already law suits pending. There were cases where people were injured due to 911 service not being available, or not dispatched soon enough on a VOIP line.

What about Reliability?

In the event of a power failure Bell supplies power to all the phone lines and your phone will still work. In general it is extremely rare for you to have a problem with your phone line.

For VOIP it's another story. If there is any problem with your phone, network, power, internet connection, or the phone or power at your internet service provider or VOIP provider your call may not go through. Most consumers will not have their equipment hooked up to a battery backup and their service will go down in the event of a power failure.

So now What?

In defense of the VOIP providers this is not an easy fix. They can't give the same level of 911 service as regular phone lines. So now what?

The VOIP industries "tell me where you think your phone will be when you call 911" approach is imperfect at best. This lesser, "911 light," service may give a false sense of security. However, some 911 service is probably better than nothing!

If have a VOIP line read the fine print. Learn the limitations. Advise everyone who uses the phone about these limitations. If you have a phone system try to route 911 calls through a land line before trying a VOIP line. Make sure all your essential equipment (internet modem, router, internet telephone adapters, etc.) are all power and surge backed up by a UPS.

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