Looking to sign up with an Internet telephone company? Be careful about the one you pick.
Many providers do not deliver enhanced 911 service, and some that fall into this group
continue to sell to new customers in seeming violation of Federal Communications
Last year the FCC set strict rules requiring voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
providers to offer enhanced 911 (E911) service to new and existing customers, and banning
companies from advertising services that don't include full E911 functionality. The term
"enhanced 911" is something of a misnomer, since it merely gives VoIP customers the same
features that standard 911 service on most landline connections provides: a direct hookup
to emergency personnel who can see a physical address and a callback number. When the
rules mandating enhanced 911 were promulgated, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin characterized
the inability of some VoIP providers to provide E911 as a "very serious problem, one
quite literally of life or death for the millions of customers that subscribe to VoIP
service as a substitute for traditional phone service."
Six months after the rule went into effect, half of the 200 US VoIP providers that
submitted compliance letters to the FCC stated that they offered E911 service to 90
percent or more of their existing customer bases. But many Net phone companies appear not
to be abiding by the FCC rules, by continuing to market and sell service without E911
support. And finding Net phone companies that offer FCC-compliant E911 service can be
more difficult than cracking the Da Vinci code.
Some Net phone companies play by the FCC's rules. SunRocket and ViaTalk, for example, sign up new customers only if
they can give them E911 capabilities.
Providers such as Lightyear Network
Solutions, however, may be risking the FCC's wrath by offering something other
than full E911 service to some new customers in locations where E911 is available for
Other companies, like MyPhoneCompany.com, make E911 an option, which
the FCC does not permit (such service is supposed to be mandatory for all phones). And a
few companies, like BroadVoice, offered no 911 service at all when we
last checked for this report.
"We are seeing a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go," says Patrick Halley,
government affairs director at the National Emergency Number Association, which promotes
implementation of enhanced 911 systems.
In 2005 the inability or unwillingness of some VoIP providers to offer 911 services
prompted safety proponents to call the lack of 911 support unsafe; they blamed a number
of high-profile deaths on callers' inability to
reach 911 services. The negative publicity spurred public awareness of the problem and
prompted the FCC to set strict VoIP 911 rules.
In May 2005, the FCC issued "E911
Requirements for IP-Enabled Service Providers," which took effect in November
2005. Central to those requirements are rules stipulating that VoIP providers offer E911
service to all customers and that providers give emergency operators a callback number
and the physical location of any 911 caller. The only exception to the ban on selling
VoIP without E911 support is when the customer lives in an area that doesn't have 911
service available for landline phones.
Faced with having to disconnect millions of VoIP customers, several Net phone companies