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Internet phone delayed help in fatal 911 call

By Emmett Berg, Bay City News Service

August 7, 2006

A Bay Point man's death in July put a human face to chatter behind the scenes at emergency agencies over how Internet phone systems can hinder rescuers trying to trace the location of stricken 911 callers.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office confirmed that on July 10 around 2:30 p.m., a 56-year-old man called 911 but was unable to give his location. The man died before rescuers could figure out where he lived.

Such dropped or garbled calls are a typical obstacle in emergency response, according to sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee. If a call originates from a ground telephone line, it can be traced quickly, he said.

Cell phone calls can also be traced, but in the case of Internet phone systems, called VoIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol phone systems, a caller's telephone number cannot be easily connected to a physical location, according to Lee. Internet phone carrier customers can choose distant area codes and use the service when they're away from home.

In the case of the Bay Point fatality, stymied rescuers first approached the company they thought was the VoIP provider for the caller, Broadwing Communications.

According to Lee, however, that firm directed officials to another VoIP provider, industry leader Vonage. More than 30 minutes elapsed before officials could connect the call with a physical address. The coroner later determined a heart attack to be the cause of the man's death.

Debate over the 911 tracing capacity of VoIP phone service has largely been confined to tech circles, but in May 2005 the Federal Communications Commission issued an order to Internet phone carriers calling on them to provide full 911 emergency calling services.

Since then, a bill nearing a floor vote in the U.S. Senate would create law codifying the inclusion of VoIP companies as among the telecommunications providers that must assess Universal Service Fees to customers. Those fees help pay for 911 services.

Senators have been battling over part of the bill spelling out waivers for VoIP companies in coming up to speed on 911 technology.

A similar waiver was granted to cellular companies as they were developing technology for 911 systems.

But advocates for rescuers, in an August 3 letter to Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R Tenn., declared their opposition to any waivers.

"There is currently no more important issue among our respective organizations than deploying e-911 as quickly as possible for every consumer using VoIP services," stated the letter signed by Bill Munn, president of the National Emergency Number Association, and Steve Marzolf, president of the National Association of State 911 Administrators.

Home telephone use of VoIP telephone systems is rising, according to a report last month from San Francisco-based Telephia, a communications research firm. VoIP firms added 700,000 customers in the second quarter alone, for an estimated national total of 2.9 million.

The firm cited as major reasons for consumers switching to VoIP telephone service was network quality, followed by pricing and customer service.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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