Do you know where your VoIP user is?

Providers of 911 solutions are holding their breath as industry and government bodies square off over how to regulate the transmission of voice over the Internet.

“There’s a great tug of war going on,” says John Thompson, vice-president of marketing and product management

at Gatineau, Que.-based CML Emergency Services Inc.

“One side is saying, ‘Governments should mandate a solution so (Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) is carrier-grade, and as reliable as a legacy phone system,’ while others believe private industry will solve the problem through the free market.”

As long as this tug of war persists, companies like CML will be in a continual “wait-and-see” mode, adds Pierre Olivier, CML’s chief architect.

One of the biggest barriers to growth for the new VoIP market is the provision of emergency services such as 911, according to Lawrence Surtees, senior research analyst telecom and Internet for IDC Canada.

A big question regarding the use of residential VoIP is whether a 24-7, 911 service can be offered through an IP network. Since IP phones are so mobile, it’s possible that an emergency response team would not be able to locate a 911 caller, subsequently putting users’ lives at risk.

Yet, companies aren’t exactly “rushing forward with any radical new technology” to solve the problem until regulators decide whether to mandate a solution or whether to leave it up to industry, says Thompson. “You could push something forward, but if the regulatory body wins, your investment could be (lost).”

Nonetheless, it seems CML is prepared to take some chances. The company’s lab is currently working on a solution that allows a VoIP user to send a call into an IT-enabled answering point though end-to-end IP calls. CML is ready to conduct trials with such technology and is prepared to release test products by the end of this year, says Thompson.

“I think it’s too soon to talk about prices,” he says. “But we will say that we’re looking to provide a bulletproof solution. We’re pushing this forward as fast as we possibly can, but the market’s going to take a while to mature.”

Some solutions that already exist include an attempt by New Jersey-based Vonage Holdings Corp. The company introduced its residential VoIP plan last December and announced its 911 scheme last April.

Vonage tries to solve the 911 problem by recording the location of all users in a database, giving them the option of changing their information if they move temporarily. However, that information becomes erroneous if the user moves for a day or two and doesn’t provide an information update, says Thompson. Even a Vonage spokeswoman calls the system “very rudimentary.”

“”If you need (traditional 911) capability, we encourage you to maintain a land line. We’re . . . months away from a solution,”” says Brooke Schulz.

Another option is to build a Global Positioning System into the laptop or IP phone exactly the same way it’s done for traditional cell phones. GPS PCMCIA cards can be slotted into a laptop, so “logically cell phones can tap into that” as well, says Thompson.

“The industry is starting to look into that. But the first concern is, how do you make sure a standard exists? and ‘How do you get people to actually acquire or deploy the technology to make sure (users) are located? How do you put the impetus on the computer industry to (do this)?”

He adds: “The computer industry could be mandated into building GPS capability into every laptop, but how do you achieve that?”

Whatever happens, the solution must be standardized so 911 calls from a VoIP user are recognized by all vendors, Thompson says.

Meanwhile, regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have yet to classify the VoIP telephone business as an information service or a telecommunications carrier service.

If it goes with the latter, companies offering VoIP would be regulated under traditional telecom rules, and Canada’s regulatory counterpart, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), would likely follow suit. However, no deadlines have been set by the CRTC regarding an e911 rollout, and there is no mandate from the federal body except that Canadian cell phone providers must deploy e911 service in communities where e911 is available.

In a process that is expected to take at least a year, the FCC began proceedings last December to determine what, if any, telecom taxes and rules should apply to VoIP. If the FCC finds VoIP to be an information service, the industry would avoid a legion of rules and regulations that govern traditional phone companies.

In the next few weeks, the FCC will hold a critical issues panel in Washington, D.C., and CML plans to go there to talk about 911 solutions for the VoIP space.


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