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E911 and VoIP: Where's the emergency?

Users of VoIP phone systems once worried that in a medical emergency, their calls might get lost. This may have been true at one time but today there are a number of fixes on the market that make this problem moot.

Voice over IP has faced a lot of stumbling blocks, from quality and consistency to cost. In some cases these remain legitimate concerns. But one problem, the ability for a caller to obtain emergency services after dialing 911, has been overblown.

Today there are a number of fixes on the market that make this problem moot.

When a call is placed to 911 from a traditional phone, it will be routed to the correct operator based on the phone's number. If the caller happens to pass out from, say, a heart attack before she can relate her location, the operator can look up her address based on the phone number and send an ambulance. With a traditional system, everything relates back to the number, said Dave Passmore, an analyst at the Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah, consulting firm.

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But with an IP system, the phone number is not tied to any specific location. When that IP-based system has to function with the circuit switched emergency services system, plenty of problems can arise.

One major concern for customers who use voice over IP (VoIP) systems is whether or not an emergency call will reach the correct operator. "If I'm in New York City and I call 911, I don't want that call to go to San Francisco," said Scott Keagy, a product manager at Cisco Systems Inc.

If you're on an IP system where the call travels over a packet network to San Francisco and then is routed to the trunk of the phone line there, that is exactly what could happen.

Cisco Systems Inc., Avaya Inc. and other vendors have developed call mangers for VoIP that hold information about the location of each phone and are able to properly route calls to the correct operator. These systems have been on the market for some time said Galen Schreck, Forrester Research.

But getting the call to the right emergency operator is only half the battle, Passmore said. That operator must also be able to locate the caller. This is not simply an important back up function. Both Washington State and Illinois require that the emergency services operator can locate a caller based on their phone number.

Both Avaya and Cisco's current systems will give the operator the building address which is identified when the IP signal hits the trunk of the local phone service. That level of identification is usually adequate, Schreck said.

"You can have caller ID locate you in the city, pinpointing you in the building is much more difficult. The internal security guys should be able to locate you on a console and look up the location of the extension," Schreck said.

Nonetheless, both Cisco and Avaya have felt enough pressure from customers, and enough concern about possible legislation to begin developing systems that identify callers within a building. Cisco already has its product in trials Keagy said. Avaya's is due out next year.

Both companies have taken a similar approach. With this system, administrators will assign everyone a phone number and he or she will set a few numbers aside. Rather than assigning them to people, those numbers will be associated with a location. So when a 911 call is made, the number associated with an individual's location, rather than her phone, will be passed along to the emergency operator.

Both companies are also working on ways to update location information in the database without requiring an administrator to enter it manually. Avaya's approach requires that the user type in a location code if the phone is moved from one location to another, said Avaya product manager Bob Liston.

Burton Group's Virginia office has taken a different approach to its VOIP service. It has given up phone lines completely and uses a VoIP service where all traffic is routed through its T1 line to a hosted call center run by a company called TalkingNets.

An emergency call placed through its system gives the operator the building address and nothing further. One drawback is that if an employee removed the phone from the office and used it from another location and called 911, the operator would get the wrong address.

Tony Surak, vice president of marketing and co-founder of TalkingNets said customers are told that they can not remove phones from the office for this reason.

Companies such as Cisco and Avaya are starting to bet on VOIP as the direction that voice calls will migrate. According to a Forrester Survey, 14% of businesses have moved to VoIP. But perhaps more significant is that 43% of the companies surveyed were either piloting voice over IP or considering migrating to the technology, Schreck said.

"A lot of people are on the precipice looking over and they are deciding to try it out," Schreck said.

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