Vonage To Make 911 An 'Opt-Out' Option

Under fire for its lack of a comprehensive solution for emergency 911 services, Voice over IP leader Vonage Holdings Corp. said it will change its registration process to make 911

May 12, 2005

4 Min Read
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Under fire for its lack of a comprehensive solution for emergency 911 services, Voice over IP leader Vonage Holdings Corp. said it will change its registration process to make 911 services an opt-out rather than an opt-in option.

Vonage chief executive Jeffrey Citron said the company would change its registration procedures to the opt-out format "sometime this summer," as part of an overall revamping of the company's 911 services implementations. Vonage is currently facing lawsuits from several states over both the advertisment and implementation of its 911 services, which some states claim are misleading.

A recent case involving a Houston-area home break-in and shooting where a Vonage customer was unable to reach 911 prompted a lawsuit from Texas and another incident in Florida where a couple has alleged that their child died because they were unable to reach 911 via a Vonage connection have put the heat on the leading independent provider of VoIP services, which now claims to have signed up more than 650,000 customers.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Citron said the move to an opt-out system -- where new Vonage customers would automatically be signed up for some level of 911 service via the initial registration process -- could help address some of the issues raised by the states' lawsuits.

"We've met with the Texas attorney general, and are working on ways of resolving [their legal differences]," Citron said. The move to an opt-out system, Citron said, would be company-wide, and not just in selected markets."The opt-out system will happen this summer," Citron said. "You would have to specifically request not to have 911 services [tied to a Vonage phone number]."

While the move to opt-out might help ease Vonage's legal burden against the state lawsuits, it might also give Vonage a jump start on complying with any regulations that might come out of next Thursday's open meeting of the Federal Communications Commission, where chairman Kevin Martin is expected to introduce regulations requiring VoIP providers to implement 911 services.

Part of the problem for Vonage and other independent VoIP providers is getting access to the emergency-call infrastructure, a system of dedicated routers and databases generally run by the large incumbent telcos, a list that includes Verizon, SBC, BellSouth and Qwest. While Vonage has recently signed a commercial 911 access deal with Verizon and is along the same lines with Qwest, it has had a rocky road dealing with SBC.

Citron, who said his company has met recently with all four FCC commissioners, claims not to know which way the FCC might or might not move at the May 19 meeting. But he said Vonage would welcome a mandate to open the emergency-services infrastructure to independent players like Vonage, who Citron said haven't been able to secure such connections easily or with any speed.

"We wrote open letters to all the RBOCs in January, and here it is May and we still don't have [911] access," said Citron, whose company now certainly has the cash to pay for any such deals. "It just shows you how complicated a process it currently is."Close watchers of the FCC expect the commission to rule quickly on VoIP 911 services. Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff who is now a telecom analyst for financial researchers Legg Mason, said the political winds generated by the publicized cases of VoIP 911 failures makes such regulation inescapable.

"The notion of 911 regulation for VoIP has always had the air of inevitability," Levin said. Any commercial phone service with a high level of consumer market penetration, he added, would likely be "subject to certain social-obligation regulation."

The political pressure generated by the Texas and Florida cases, Levin said, would undoubtedly add urgency to the FCC's proceedings. But Vonage's Citron said that undue haste in applying VoIP 911 regulation could lead to a mishmash of implementation efforts which could be more costly and less efficient in the long run than an industry-wide standard implementation (which might take longer to develop and deploy).

If the FCC moves as reported for a compliance deadline before the end of the year, Citron said independent VoIP providers like Vonage "might not have enough time to agree" on an industry-wide standard way to bring 911 services to VoIP customers, especially those who choose to physically move their IP phones to different locations.

Though Martin lacks a Republican majority on the FCC (which currently has only four commissioners since former chairman Michael Powell's slot has yet to be filled), Democratic commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps aren't likely to offer any opposition to VoIP 911 regulations, since they have in the past called for more clarity about the subject.According to Citron, Vonage has successfully handled more than 100,000 911 calls from its customers, and is doing its best to get to the next level for as many customers as it can.

"We're not going to have a 100 percent solution for every user [by an aggressive FCC deadline]," Citron said. "But there are solutions out there that work [today]. And they can be improved upon."

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