The Quick Start Guide to VOIP for the Home, Home Office, and Small Business

E911 and Dialing 911 with VOIP

One of the major drawbacks to VOIP phone service is the limitations when it comes to the handling of emergency 911 calls.

In traditional 911, an emergency response center traces the location of the caller through the phone number.

Telephone companies provide 911 operators with a reverse lookup file that automatically pulls up the caller’s physical address.

However, in the case of a mobile telephone number, such as calls from a cell phone, geographic location of the caller is more difficult. As well, in the case of VOIP, the geographic location of a 911 caller is unknown since VOIP uses the Internet (IP addresses) instead of telephone numbers to route calls. IP addresses do not have geographic addresses tied to them. That’s where E911 comes in.

What is E911?

Enhanced 911 (E911) is network feature developed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in North America in which the both the calling number and the physical location of the caller is transmitted to the 911 operator. Originally developed by the FCC to allow mobile or cellular phones to process 911 emergency calls and help emergency services locate the geographic position of the caller, E911 is now mandated by the FCC to be provided by broadband phone companies as well.

In June of 2005, the FCC ruled that VOIP service providers that connect to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), must include E911 service in their regular service plans. VOIP providers that offer computer to computer services, such as Skype, do not provide 911 service.

Not all VOIP providers offer E911 yet so make sure you find out how your current or potential Internet phone company stacks up. The FCC also mandated that VOIP providers clearly spell out the limitations of their 911 service so that you know when 911 is available and when it is not. For example, VOIP 911 service may be in unavailable during a power outage or broadband Internet outage. Or the local public service answering points (PSAPs) are not yet equipped to receive or display E911 address information.

Some companies currently rolling out E911 include:

  • Vonage—only available in certain areas. If E911 is not available, Vonage routes the 911 through the traditional 911 network to a local emergency response center and you must be prepared to provide your address information. If your call can't be routed via E911 or traditional 911, the call goes to Vonage's national 911 emergency response center, where trained emergency personnel are standing by to help you get local help.
  • Packet8—only available in certain areas.

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