The VOIP Providers
VoIP and 911
VoIP has come a long way from its launch in 1995. Many businesses have started to consider VoIP as an alternative means of communication. Due to the significantly lower costs, individual consumers are also more and more attracted by this new form of telephony. In addition to the more advantageous fees, VoIP also enables people to integrate advanced technological solutions such as data, e-mail, and web communications in addition to voice, all within one network.
There is a fundamental conceptual – and functional – difference between VoIP technology and traditional telephony. A conventional phone conversation is based on establishing an electrical circuit between two phones through interconnected switches (hence the name “public switched telephone network”, or PSTN). In the past, there used to be a switchboard operator manually connecting every pair of callers, now the connection is automated. On the other hand, VoIP relies on packet switching instead of circuit switching – and if the term sounds familiar to you from computer networks, you are right. Packets of data are transmitted over the Internet to make communication possible between two computers, a phone and a computer, or two phones.
The advantages of VoIP are numerous and account for the growing number of people subscribing to the services of an IP telephony provider. There are, however, disadvantages as well, and one of them was quite serious at a time. This disadvantage has to do with the callers’ ability to benefit from 911 rescue. Because of the nature of IP communications, the location of a VoIP caller is impossible to trace. The problem has become less serious after the Wireless Communicatins and Safety Public Act was enforced in 1999, requiring that all telephone carriers should ensure that their customers have 911 access. Mobile carriers, who were confronted with the same problem, soon complied, making mobile calls easily traceable.
Let’s have a brief look at how 911 works and explaining the new 911 technology called E911 (where E stands for “enhanced”). A call whose intended recipient is the emergency line will be routed to the Public Safety Answering Point Dispatcher. The caller ID (name and address) will be displayed. This used to be impossible in the early days of mobile telephony, but thanks to the implementation of a global tracking system, the location of a caller using a mobile phone can now be pinpointed and extended to a surrounded range of 50 to 300 metres.
However VoIP is a service of a completely different nature. Relying on wireless media and broadband routers, it will identify callers not according to their physical address, but to their IP address. As a result, the 911 operator will not be able to see where you’re calling from. The problem has been receiving media coverage lately, with the news informing of people who were unable to effectively use the 911 service.
The FCC has required VoIP providers to solve the issue, but because IP telephony is based on a fundamentally different system of telecommunications, the solution is not that simple. Some providers have integrated E911 services similar to those implemented by mobile carriers, but this still hasn’t solved all problems. Generally, it is possible to trace the ISP of a caller, but that is of no help in critical situations. While new solutions are increasing the chances of determining the location of a VoIP caller, the attempt is not always successful. For a clear idea, you can run a quick Google search of IP tracing programs, and see how often you get the accurate location of your own computer.
This is why VoIP customers are required to sign a statement attesting that they are aware of these problems. The best thing you can do, for the time being, is to either keep your conventional telephone subscription in addition to VoIP, or to have your mobile phone with you, in case you ever need to call the emergency line. And, if you have no other option than calling from your VoIP phone, remember to give the 911 dispatcher all relevant information regarding your location, as they may not be able to accurately trace it.
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