This Is an Emergency

911 is a joke for VoIP customers.

When I called 911 one recent evening to report a mugging, I expected one of those fast-talking emergency operators. Instead, I got a lecture.

“Hello,” a woman said.

“Hello,” I said. “Is this 911?”

“No,” she said.

After some prodding, she revealed that she did work for the New York Police Department. “911 is near here,” she added unhelpfully.

Before I could report the mugging, the officer had her own report to make. “Is your carrier Vonage? Someone needs to make a complaint about them,” she said. “I’m not an emergency operator. If you was to become unconscious, I don’t have your address. This isn’t good.”

I’ve been a happy Vonage subscriber for a bit under a year now. Vonage is the leading American provider of Internet telephone service (also known as Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP). The base of my phone, a standard cordless model, plugs into a featureless black box, which in turn plugs into my modem. That black box turns my voice into packets of data, which are carried over the Internet, then linked back into the regular telephone system. I pay $15 a month, down from the more than $40 I was paying Verizon. Plus, I can plug in my black box when I travel, allowing me to make and receive local New York calls if I’m in Texas or Latvia.

Verizon still beats Vonage in an emergency, though. When you dial the magic three digits from a standard land line, your call travels to a local switching station, then bounces to a dedicated network reserved only for 911 calls. This special emergency circuit also links the call to the “Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification” database of phone numbers, names, and addresses. Plugging VoIP into this system isn’t easy.

While land-line 911 calls travel on the copper wire that makes up your local phone system, a Vonage call starts online. VoIP calls enter the phone system through a local gateway that converts digital packets of sound into the analog signals that make up a typical phone call. If police responding to a VoIP 911 call tried to link the gateway’s phone number to a physical address, they wouldn’t find an emergency, just a room full of humming servers plugged into telephone lines. 

VoIP companies have come up with a solution to the gateway problem. Vonage has figured out how to program its servers to attach caller ID to outgoing calls—my calls, for example, show my 718 area code and phone number.But that only works if I don’t take my black box to Texas or Latvia.

At this point, creating functional 911 service means sacrificing one of the most attractive features that Vonage and the other inexpensive VoIP providers offer: portability.Phone and cable giants like MCI and Time Warner Cable that have recently jumped on the VoIP bandwagon have made 911 work by restricting their service to home use. MCI, for one, provides emergency call centers the phone numbers of its VoIP customers along with the assurance that they won’t move their phones around the country or around the world. But without that portability, VoIP is pretty pointless—nothing more than a (slightly) cheaper version of regular telephone service.  

The VoIP providers that allow portability, like Vonage and AT&T’s CallVantage, are relying on a stop-gap solution. After I plugged in my black box, I logged on to Vonage’s Web site and entered my address in an online form. When I dialed 911, Vonage used my address to search a database of call-center numbers maintained by a Colorado company called Intrado. During a short pause on my end of the line, Vonage translated “911” into the 10-digit number for a Brooklyn call center that Intrado identified as closest to my house.

This system has run into problems, comical and scary, around the country. The worst arrive when customers take their black boxes on the road. Recently, puzzled Nashville, Tenn., emergency operators struggled to find a caller’s address—until they realized that they were responding to an emergency in Texas. The call-center solution is also fallible because it counts on individual public-safety agencies to provide 10-digit numbers. Some pass on numbers that lead to administrative lines, like the one I got. Some provide numbers that are answered only during business hours; at other times, callers get a message telling them to dial 911.

Unfortunately, the 911 call centers—aware that Vonage can’t reliably tell them what address I’m calling from—have been reluctant to integrate VoIP numbers into their ANI/ALI databases. They’ve also been loath to share the secret, direct numbers for their emergency call centers, rather than administrative lines like the one I was given. Plus, their old-line computers can’t read the digital information about my address that Vonage is capable of sending.

The VoIP/911 problem isn’t totally insoluble, though. Legislation could be passed to force VoIP providers and local telephone companies to enter VoIP numbers into local address databases and/or to force emergency call centers to share their secret, direct numbers with VoIP providers. Consumers, however, would still have the burden of passing on their location every time they took their phone to a new city, even for a weekend. Alternately, emergency call centers could upgrade their computers so they can process the digital information that travels with VoIP calls—everything ranging from a caller’s address to his medical records.But emergency call centers are local institutions, and either of these imperfect solutions would require the kind of national standardization that it’s hard to imagine without federal carrots and sticks.

Meanwhile, a Florida company, VoIP Inc., is touting a self-consciously low-tech solution to the problem. It’s a gizmo that links your VoIP phone to your old, unused land line (if you have one), which local phone companies are supposed to maintain for emergency use. I hadn’t gone that low-tech the night I called 911. But the operator and I did rely on an old-fashioned method of pinpointing my location. “We’re near Macy’s,” she told me. “Are you near Macy’s?”