net.wars: The Internet calls 911

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 May 2005

A couple of weeks ago, a story hit the wires about a couple who claimed their child died because they were unable to reach 911 – the emergency service number in the US – via their VoIP Internet phone.

Wendy M Grossman

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that VOIP service providers must provide direct connections to 911 for their customers. Incumbent local phone service providers – Baby Bells such as Verizon and SBC – must open their networks to make it possible. The FCC also intends to adopt in future what it calls an "E911 solution" whereby a customer's geographical location can be determined without the person's having to give this information – crucial if the caller passes out during the call or is confused, disoriented, or a very young child.

Now, you can argue about the fairness of this. If customers want to save money by signing up for Vonage instead of Verizon, isn't it their prerogative to decide they're willing to give up 911 access in return for lower costs? Some people don't even have phones: what about them? Are we going to mandate that everyone must have some kind of phone that can call emergency services? Anyway, why can't people just use their neighbours' phones?

Personally, I'd argue that VoIP has become so mainstream that customers may not understand the trade-off they're making until it's too late; that there are very few people in the US who don't have phones; and that some people don't even have neighbours In any case, decades of advertising have taught people to expect that when you dial 911 you get help. In an emergency, that's what you're trained to remember. And most people, let's face it, don't think very well in emergencies. You can read the list of emergency numbers taped to your refrigerator in a crisis, but can your mother with Alzheimer's?

From the point of view of the companies concerned, there's a different set of questions about fairness. How does a company that offers free VoIP pay for the infrastructure necessary to connect to 911? But the legacy telcos cost more in part because they must meet regulatory requirements for universal service and provide services like 911.

The US is not alone in seeking regulation. In the UK, Ofcom is considering what to do to balance protecting customers with encouraging the development of new services. In April, Canada decided to regulate VoIP as a phone service -- because that's how Canadians use it. Curiously, VoIP with its potential cost savings, has been even less popular in the countries where you'd expect people to benefit most: third-world countries where telecommunications costs go through the roof. Often, the governments in those countries benefit financially from interconnection charges, and are not willing to see them bypassed. In 911, the FCC finally found a reason (or excuse, depending on your point of view) to regulate VoIP that is an easy sell.

Jeff Pulver, who was as far as I can remember the first person to experiment with VoIP when he set up the FreeWorld Dialup experiment in 1994, has been blogging gloomily about the Meaning of It All. Emergency services, he argues, is a nice hot-button issue to use to bring in regulation that the telephone companies want anyway, for business reasons. The upshot: the death of small, innovative operators in, I suppose, a parallel to what's happening to independent dial-up ISPs as everyone shifts to telco- and cableco- controlled broadband.

There are, to be sure, lots of technical queries about how this is going to work. The ruling says "interconnected VoIP providers", and makes it plain that the new rule does not apply to instant messaging, Internet gaming, or other IP-based service providers, even if their services include a voice component. They mean the people who are selling phone service. If you're using Intervivo, Vonage, or Skype while you're travelling, where will they think you are? Geographical identification services on the Net are unreliable at best.

Besides that, E911 (for "enhanced 911") itself, brought in to ensure that mobile phone customers could be geographically located by the emergency services, is controversial with privacy advocates because it creates an infrastructure for tracking and surveillance that mobile phone customers cannot opt out of.

No matter how you decide the above issues, for the Internet, this decision marks a watershed. If the regulations stand, it is, in a sense, the moment when the rest of the world finally has a way to insist that the Internet grow up. For all that we've built multi-billion dollar structures on top of it, most of the Net still has no service-level agreements, and the Net in general operates on the assumption that anyone using it has alternatives. If Amazon is down in a DDoS attack, you wait or you buy the book from a physical store. If the IRS server is down you mail in the return. If your email is choked with spam you change addresses, make a phone call, or use IM.

That is beginning to change, and VoIP is the messenger. VoIP's regulation may be the wedge that allows the rest of the Internet to slowly become so, too. After all, what good is guaranteed interconnection to 911 if when you pick up the receiver you don't reliably get a dial tone?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).