The ability to access emergency services by dialing 911 is a vital component of public safety and emergency preparedness. Recent reports of consumers’ inability to access life-saving emergency services while using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services have highlighted a critical public safety gap.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken steps to close this gap by imposing Enhanced 911 (E911) obligations on providers of “interconnected” VoIP services, i.e., VoIP services that use the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), including wireless networks, to originate and terminate calls. E911 systems automatically provide to emergency service personnel a 911 caller’s call back number and, in most cases, location information.
What Is Interconnected VoIP Service?
Interconnected VoIP service allows you to make and receive calls to and from traditional phone numbers, usually using a high speed Internet connection. It can be used in place of traditional phone service. For more on the technology visit the Federal Communication Commissions website.
What challenges does VoIP service create for Public Safety?
Traditional phone services have generally associated a particular phone number with a fixed address. Portable interconnected VoIP services enable consumers to take their home or business phone service almost anywhere. Because certain interconnected VoIP services can be used from virtually any Internet connection, the location of the caller cannot automatically be determined. This portability raises a number of challenges for the emergency services community.
What should I know about VoIP?
The FCC has recently taken action to make sure that emergency calls from these VoIP services will get through to the appropriate public safety authorities, but there are certain things that consumers need to know.
When you call 911 from a traditional telephone, the call in most cases is sent to an emergency service provider in your local area. 911 operators can often automatically identify your location and dispatch the closest emergency personnel. They also often can identify your telephone number and call you back if you are disconnected.
Because VoIP service works differently from traditional phone service, consumers who use it should be aware that VoIP 911 service may also work differently from traditional 911 service.
The FCC and VoIP service providers are striving to eliminate these differences, but some of them are:
- VoIP 911 call may not connect to a 911 center
- VoIP 911 service may ring to the 911 centers administrative line not be staffed after hours
- VoIP 911 service correctly connected to the 911 center, but did not automatically transmit the user’s phone number and/or location
- VoIP customers may need to provide location or other information to their VoIP providers, and update this information if they change locations, for their VoIP 911 service to function properly
- VoIP service may not work during a power outage, or when the Internet connection fails or becomes overloaded
What has the FCC done to reduce the risk to public safety?
The FCC has imposed the following requirements:
- All interconnected VoIP providers must provide 911 service to customers without customers having to request the service
- VoIP providers may not allow their customers to “opt-out” of 911 service
- Before an interconnected VoIP provider can activate a new customer’s service, the provider must obtain from the customer the physical location at which the service will first be used
- Interconnected VoIP providers must provide an easy method for customers to update the physical location they have registered with the provider
- Interconnected VoIP providers must transmit all 911 calls, as well as a callback number and the caller’s registered physical location, to the appropriate emergency services call center or local emergency authority
- Interconnected VoIP providers must take appropriate action to ensure that customers have a clear understanding of the limitations, if any, of their 911 service
- All providers must advise new and existing customers of the circumstances under which 911 service may not be available or may be limited in comparison to traditional 911 service
- They must distribute labels to all customers warning them if 911 service may be limited or not available and instructing them to place the labels on and/or near the equipment used in conjunction with the interconnected VoIP service
- Interconnected VoIP providers must obtain acknowledgement from existing customers that they understand the limitations of their 911 service
- In some areas, emergency service providers are not capable of receiving or processing the location information or call back number that is automatically transmitted with 911 calls. In those areas, interconnected VoIP providers must ensure that a 911 call is routed to the appropriate 911 call center
As a user of VoIP what should I do?
- Provide your accurate physical address to your interconnected VoIP service provider
- Be familiar with your VoIP service provider’s procedures for updating your address, and promptly update address information in the event of a change
- Have a clear understanding of any limitations of your 911 service
- Inform children, babysitters, and visitors about your VoIP service and its 911 limitations
- If your power is out or your Internet connection is down, be aware that your VoIP service may not work. Consider installing a backup power supply, maintaining a traditional phone line, or having a wireless phone as a backup
- If you have questions about whether the phone service you are receiving is an interconnected VoIP service, contact your service provider for further information
How do I learn more about VoIP and 911?
For more information about interconnected VoIP and 911 or about VoIP in general visit the Federal Communication Commissions website or contact the FCC’s Consumer Center at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice, or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY.