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Net phone firm: San Francisco users have new 911 protection

By Emmett Berg, Bay City News Service

August 8, 2006

A leading provider of Internet-based telephone service announced today that its customers in San Francisco are now equipped with a 911 service allowing authorities to trace emergency calls.

The rollout of "Enhanced 911" by Vonage means that subscribers who dial 911 will have their VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, telephone numbers linked to a physical address.

Emergency agencies and advocacy organizations have been sounding alarms about disconnects between VoIP telephones, which are growing in popularity, and 911 systems. In some cases, emergency personnel cannot trace a VoIP call if the caller garbles information or hangs up too soon. Calls made from ground lines or cell phones are comparatively easy to track.

The problem became more than theoretical in Contra Costa County on July 10, when a Bay Point man died after dialing 911 from a VoIP phone, and not communicating his location before hanging up.

After the man, 56, hung up prematurely, 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 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.

An official from Vonage was not immediately available today for comment on the case.

Debate over the 911 tracing capacity of VoIP phone service has largely been confined to tech circles, but in June 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.

In today's announcement, Vonage officials said that 83 percent of customers nationwide were covered by Enhanced 911.

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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