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Up VoIP Creek

Have an emergency plan while VoIP providers work on 911 shortcomings.

VoIP's lack of landline-class emergency services didn't seem that big a deal initially--tall phone-bill savings overshadowed the problem. Then a couple of Vonage customers dialed 911 and didn't get an emergency response.

Within days, state attorneys general had filed consumer-protection lawsuits against Vonage, and Congress introduced new bills to tax VoIP. The FCC told internet phone companies to have landline-grade emergency services by November.

Most broadband phone companies already have 911 services of a sort. But unlike a traditional phone number, a VoIP phone number isn't tied to a street address, so customers have to register their locations. Some calls get routed through administrative offices instead of directly to emergency responders--often without location and callback numbers. That all needs fixing by November, warns the FCC.

"That shouldn't be a problem," says Brooke Schulz, Vonage senior vice president. "We were already close to getting access to the Bells' infrastructure." All four Bell Operating Companies have agreed to open their 911 systems to all VoIP providers.

That still won't automatically pinpoint businesspeople who use VoIP on the road, something that could be fixed by Enhanced 911, or E911, service. That is being slowly rolled out, region by region, and adopted by carriers to different degrees. For a $1.50 monthly surcharge, 8x8 claims to provide coverage "which mirrors that of legacy landline phone service providers" in 43 states.

Covad, SunRocket and Zoom Technologies have all expressed confidence they can meet the FCC's deadline. But service levels and features could vary for a while, warns Teresa Mastrangelo, principal analyst at Broadbandtrends.com. Remember, even with E911, you can't make any calls if you lose power. And no one has figured out how to find internet-only callers whose transmissions don't veer onto the traditional phone network.

For the near term, scrutinize your VoIP provider's emergency coverage closely. And if you do dial 911, specify your location to emergency personnel--just to be on the safe side.

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This article was originally published in the August 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Up VoIP Creek.

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