A number of vendors are marketing a new telephone service referred to by a number of names such as digital telephone service, Internet telephone service, or Voice over IP (VoIP.) Instead of using conventional telephone service and lines, VoIP communicates through Internet broadband.
The advantages to the consumer include a potentially lower cost than conventional telephone service, greater mobility, and the ability to send both voice and data over a single system. The disadvantages may outweigh these advantages.
Public Safety Challenges of VoIP Service
Traditional phone services have generally associated a particular phone number with a fixed address. Portable interconnected VoIP service enables consumers to take their home or business phone service almost anywhere. Because certain interconnected VoIP services are portable, or can be used from virtually any Internet connection anywhere, a 911 Communications Center may not be capable of determining the location of the caller.
This portability raises a number of challenges for the emergency services community. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken action to make sure that emergency calls from these VoIP services will get through to the appropriate public safety authorities, there are still possible differences between VoIP E911 and traditional wired line E911 service, so there are certain things that consumers need to know.
When you call 911 from a traditional telephone, the call in most cases is sent to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) that is responsible for helping people in a particular geographic area or community. PSAP personnel often can automatically identify your location and direct the closest emergency personnel to that location. They also often can automatically identify your telephone number so that they can call you back if you are disconnected.
Differences in Services
Since VoIP service works differently from traditional phone service, consumers who use it should be aware that VoIP 911 service may also work differently from traditional 911 service. VoIP service providers, in response to FCC action, are making progress in eliminating these differences, but some of the possible differences include:
VoIP 911 calls may not connect to the PSAP, or may improperly ring to the administrative line of the PSAP, which may not be staffed after hours, or by trained 911 operators
VoIP 911 calls may correctly connect to the PSAP, but not automatically transmit the user's phone number and/or location information
VoIP customers may need to provide location or other information to their VoIP providers, and update this information if they change locations, for their VoIP 911 service to function properly
VoIP service may not work during a power outage, or when the Internet connection fails or becomes overloaded
Limitations of Other VoIP Services
Subscribers of VoIP services that do not fully interconnect with the PSTN should be aware that providers of those services are not currently required to comply with the FCC's 911 and E911 rules.
Read Before You Sign
We strongly urge consumers to consider these factors when deciding whether to subscribe to a digital telephone service. Ask the vendor about the items we have listed. Use the Internet to investigate this situation thoroughly before signing on with any one of them. Read your contract completely before you sign it. Consider the facts, the life you save may be your own!