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
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,
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
"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
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
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