The pre-recorded voice on the other end of the phone was not what 17-year old Joyce Johns – whose parents had just been shot in the living room of their home – wanted to hear.
“Stop,” the voice began. “You must dial 911 from another telephone; 911 is not available from this telephone line. No emergency personnel will be dispatched. Please, hang up now and dial 911 from a different phone.”
(Click to hear the recorded message.)
Upon hearing this message, Johns frantically ran to a neighbor’s house, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle. When that neighbor wasn’t home, she went to another neighbor, where she finally found a phone and reached the emergency operators.
Why couldn’t Johns call 911 in her moment of utmost need?
Because her family was using phone service from Vonage, the leading voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service in the United States.
The 911 emergency service doesn’t come preinstalled with the basic Vonage package. To activate the account, users need to provide the company with a street address, a fact the family didn’t realize.
As a result of the Johns’ episode, Greg Abbott, the Texas State Attorney General, on Tuesday announced a lawsuit at a press conference Houston seeking civil penalties of $20,000 and an temporary injunction against the company until it more properly discloses the differences between regular 911 service and that offered by Vonage.
In the lawsuit, Abbott takes exception to Vonage’s marketing claims.
“[Vonage’s claims that] its VoIP services replace traditional phone service are misleading, false and confusing because in fact, the ‘911’ feature of its service is vastly different from the traditional 9-1-1 service which consumers in Texas enjoy and rely upon.”
Notification of this difference is contained in a link on the company’s website, on the “Products and Services” page, under “Great Benefits.” It’s also explained deep within its terms of service agreement.
“When people look at Vonage’s Internet or TV ads, nowhere does it mention not having regular 911 service,” says Paco Felici, a spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General. “Under Texas’s deceptive trade services act, that’s a substantial misrepresentation of a product or service.”
Vonage is currently the largest VoIP provider in the United States with over 500,000 subscribers, according to the company.
TechnologyReview.com called the Vonage’s customer service line and asked representatives whether or not 911 service was included in Vonage’s calling plans.
“You have to activate it but then you can dial 911,” said the company representative. “It’s in the terms and conditions. We tell that to all the callers.”