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911 emergencies out of reach for some Internet phones

click to enlarge It could take 911 operator Mary King up to 15 minutes to - answer emergency calls from Internet-based telephone - customers. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • It could take 911 operator Mary King up to 15 minutes to answer emergency calls from Internet-based telephone customers.

In February, when burglars allegedly broke into Joyce John's Houston, Texas, home and held her parents at gunpoint, she knew what to do. She dialed 911.

But instead of receiving immediate assistance, she received a recorded message saying 911 service was not available from the family's Internet-based telephone. Her parents were shot, though they survived their injuries.

Around the nation and here in Colorado Springs, John's case has confirmed emergency officials' fears that the booming use of the Internet for telephone calls poses a major risk.

"It's a huge problem," said Jim Anderson, who manages the emergency system for El Paso County. "The Web phones have no way of connecting to the 911 system."

Instead of being instantly connected, 911 calls made from Internet telephones in El Paso County and Colorado Springs are currently routed to a non-emergency telephone line. It can take up to 15 minutes before they are answered.

"If our 911 lines are getting hammered during a storm, our [non-emergency lines] have to wait," said Lynn Sherman, who manages 911 services for the Colorado Springs Police Department.

Although no major problems have yet occurred locally as a result of the delays, Anderson said finding a solution to the problem is among his top priorities.

6000,000 customers

Making telephone calls on the Internet has become a red-hot technology trend, with companies offering customers unlimited calling for what often amounts to a fraction of what traditional phone companies charge. Customers need only to sign up for a high-speed Web connection.

Vonage, the largest Internet-based phone company, offers unlimited coast-to-coast dialing for $25 a month. The company boasts 600,000 customers nationwide and expects that number to increase to 1 million by year's end.

But voice-over-internet telephones are incompatible with the systems that allow standard telephone and cell phones to connect directly with 911 emergency services. They need to be specially programmed in order for the calls to go through.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued Vonage, charging the company failed to make the emergency risks clear in promotional materials and potentially misled consumers that they'd be able to make calls directly to 911 call centers.

Takes only minutes

Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz said that, in the Texas case, the customer's Internet phone had not been programmed to reach emergency services -- a process she says is prompted during registration and takes only minutes.

As for the inability to connect directly to emergency services, Schulz said "up until now the phone companies have not wanted to sell access to us" due to fear of competition. But this month telephone giant Qwest pledged to allow Vonage direct access to 911 call centers in 14 states, including Colorado. Schulz said Vonage expects limited direct dialing to be possible by year's end.

But some critics, such as El Paso County's Anderson, say Vonage and other Internet phone providers aren't going far enough to fix a dangerous problem -- and one made worse by the lack of federal and state regulation.

"Vonage is fighting it every way they can," Anderson said, referring to the Texas lawsuit and calls for federal regulation by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.

The FCC is currently examining whether regulating Internet phones would be appropriate, said commission spokesman Mark Wigfield. "In particular the commission is very concerned about 911 services."

-- Dan Wilcock

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