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Vonage sued over 911 calling

Peter Rojas
03.23.05
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The Texas state attorney general has filed a suit against Vonage over one of the biggest complaints about their broadband VoIP service: that you can't use them to call 911. Or at least, that you can't call 911 without first visiting Vonage's website and activating 911 dialing on your account. The suit is in response to an incident in which girl unsuccessfully tried to call 911 from a Vonage line that hadn't been activated for emergency calls after her parents were shot (both survived, by the way). The suit accuses Vonage of engaging in deceptive trade practices by not making it clear enough that 911 calling doesn't work right out of the box and that they don't adequately publicize what subscribers have to do to activate 911 calling.

A couple of things here: First, Vonage does make it pretty clear that you have to register on the site for 911 calling, we have Vonage and we've gotten several email and snail mail announcements from them about how to get that all hooked up (still, if they can voice spam our voicemail inbox with special deals on service plans, they could easily leave a message for every subscriber letting them know about 911 activation). But the fundamental issue here has to do with VoIP in general and how it interfaces with the traditional phone system. The current E911 system (which automatically lets an emergency call center know where you're calling from) wasn't designed to work with calls that are routed over the Internet. The crux of the problem is that the system is controlled by the regional telcos, who have a vested interest in not opening things up to competitors (like Vonage), which is why it's difficult for VoIP providers to automatically route calls to the correct call center. Hate to say it, but the only solution might be for the FCC to mandate that everyone play nicely and figure out a way to make everything work together. Otherwise it's probably just a matter of time until somebody sues Skype for not supporting 911 calling (after all, you can make calls to the regular phone network using SkypeOut).

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