Opinion: E911, management by fiat
The FCC's approach to E911 is an attempt to manage an overwhelmingly complicated infrastructure issue by little more than edict. And the result leaves VOIP providers, at least those that offer mobile service, holding the responsibility for execution, and little wherewithal to pull it off.
It’s at best a Band-Aid measure for consumers, and a significant diversion for VOIP providers who are calling, emailing, and sending letters to their customers in the hopes of getting a 100 percent mark in complying with the FCC’s order, when the message is little more than “your VOIP phone doesn’t work like your other phone,” something most savvy consumers know already, a few tragic customers in Florida and Texas notwithstanding.
To add insult to injury, all the scrambling does nothing to solve the immense infrastructure issues, and serves only as a distraction from the real work, which is upgrading the infrastructure of emergency services nationwide to accommodate this sea change in telephony.
That immense task will ultimately fall to states and municipalities, many of which are strapped for cash in the wake of, among many other issues, the stock market correction prior to and following September 11, unfunded liabilities in public employee’s retirement plans, the escalating cost of petroleum, and in California’s case, the shock of Enron’s gaming the energy market.
VOIP companies like Vonage also face an entrenched rival, in the form of the regional Bell operating companies, who have been the sole provider of E911 to states and municipalities. Already stung by the wireless market, the RBOCs, according to some in the VOIP industry, have shown considerable reluctance to extend a helping hand to a new generation of competitors.
For all the handwringing rhetoric at the FCC and RBOC level for maximizing the safety of citizens and customers, there are few signs that fixing the infrastructure is underway.
Viewed topographically, the challenge for the VOIP providers is to provide the enhanced 911 service, ie, where an emergency caller's location and phone number is revealed to the emergency operator, so that if the call is cut off, public safety authorities at least have an idea where to investigate.
At this point, revealing a mobile phone user's location is still a troubling issue for mobile providers, and they've had a decade or better to get that capability in place. VOIP providers have had just a year or two.
The workaround adopted by some, notably Vonage, has been to provide 911 access to administrative numbers in some states to emergency services, rather than patching calls into the 911 switchboard. This “back door” approach has alienated some in the public safety sector, who see it as an opportunistic exploit, rather than an attempt by a relatively small company to offer its users an emergency service.
There’s been some comment at the FCC level that mobile phones should be fitted with global positioning devices, so that if the user makes an emergency call, their location will be broadcast.
The downside is that such a feature could open the door to abuse. Some consumers don't want to be broadcasting their location when using their celphones. It's like the old saw, on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. Except on a mobile device, no one knows you're playing golf, when you should, perhaps, be elsewhere.
In VOIP’s case, the problem becomes thornier. When a Vonage user makes an emergency call, the address provided to authorities is their registered address. That may work well for customers making calls from their home or office computers. But one of the appeals to some Vonage customers is the idea of having incoming calls find them where they are, not where they’re registered.
If the incoming call makes its way to you, whether you're at the office, at the home-office, on the road, or wedging your way out of a sand trap, there’s no way authorities will have reliable information in the event of an emergency. That’s one of the risks, one can suppose, of early adoption. But now court cases, administrative rules, and risk management are making their collective presence felt.
What this brouhaha amounts to is nothing less than an acknowledgement by the RBOCs and the government that VOIP is a credible threat to the existing order of telecommunications companies. Welcome to the big time.