WASHINGTON – Internet phone providers were ordered Thursday to begin supplying reliable 911 emergency call service after regulators heard an anguished Florida woman describe how she was unable to summon help to save her dying infant daughter.
The Federal Communications Commission (search) gave companies 120 days to certify that their customers will be able to reach an emergency dispatcher when they call 911. Also, dispatchers must be able to tell where callers are located and the numbers from which they are calling.
Her voice breaking, Cheryl Waller (search) of Deltona, Fla., told the commissioners before their vote that "120 days is seven days longer than my daughter lived." Julia Waller "died at 113 days old because I can't reach an operator," she said.
Waller said she got a recording when she used her Internet phone to call 911 after her daughter stopped breathing last March. By the time she was able to summon help with a neighbor's phone, the child was dead.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin (search), who began a push for he 911 rules soon after taking over the agency in March, said such situations are "simply unacceptable."
"Anyone who dials 911 has a reasonable expectation that he or she will be connected to an emergency operator," Martin said.
Internet phone service, known as Voice over Internet Protocol (search), or VoIP, shifts calls from wires and switches, using computers and broadband connections to convert sounds into data and transmit them via the Internet.
In many cases, subscribers use conventional phones hooked up to high-speed Internet lines.
But unlike traditional phones, which have a fixed address that a 911 operator can quickly call up, Internet phone service can be mobile. Someone with a laptop who signs up for service in Arizona, for example, may end up calling 911 for an emergency while on a trip to Boston.
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's order requires companies that allow customers to use their Internet phones anywhere there is an Internet connection to provide the same emergency capability.
The order follow months of finger-pointing and bickering between VoIP carriers and the traditional local phone companies that own the network connections to the nation's nearly 6,200 "public safety answer points."
The FCC order, approved by a 4-0 vote, requires local phone companies to provide access to their E-911 networks — those that enable emergency operators to identify the location and telephone number of the caller — to any telecommunications carrier.
Just before the FCC issued its order, Vonage Holdings Corp., one of the largest VoIP carriers, said it had reached an agreement with BellSouth and SBC Communications to purchase E-911 services for its customers.
BellSouth confirmed the deal. A spokesman for SBC said the arrangement has not been completed. Vonage reached a similar deal with Verizon last week.
John Rego, Vonage's chief financial officer, said arrangements with the three companies will enable Vonage to provide E-911 capability to more than 75 percent of its customers. He said negotiations are continuing with Qwest Communications on a deal to cover the other 25 percent.
"We've been trying to get this access for a year," Rego said. "We'll work as diligently as we can to make this happen in the next 120 days. If we don't get there, the FCC will at least be able to see we've made a very good faith effort."
Companies that fail to meet the 120-day deadline would be subject to the full range of FCC enforcement actions, including fines and cease-and-desist orders.
Under the order, VoIP carriers must provide a way for customers to update their location and callback numbers when they travel. Failure to update that information would cause an emergency operator to assume the call was coming from the last registered location.
The order also requires VoIP carriers to explain to their customers the capabilities and limitations of the emergency response service they are getting with their Internet phones. Connection to a 911 operator, for example, would not be possible for a VOIP customer if there is a power failure or loss of Internet connection.
Internet phone service usually is cheaper than traditional service, ranging from $20 to $50 per month for an unlimited national calling plan. As a result, it has become a rapidly growing industry, something federal regulators said they did not want to slow.
But, commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, "We cannot let our desire to see VoIP proliferate come at the cost of providing the best emergency services available today, nor can we afford to take any steps backward."
The order does not apply to other Internet-based providers, such as those that offer instant messaging or gaming services that contain voice components.