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The 911 compatibility is a thorny issue for the nascent VoIP industry. Some services, such as AT&T’s Callvantage program automatically enroll customers in 911 programs, while others, such as Skype – and its 31 million users worldwide – offer no 911 program at all.

“We’re very clear about that,” says Skype spokeswoman Kelly Larabee. “We’re an add-on service. We don’t recommend that people drop their regular phone.”

The issue goes beyond simply notifying customers, however. Even if a customer signs up for 911 service with a VoIP provider, the call is not routed in the same way a landline phone call would be, and may end up at the emergency dispatch’s administrative office – not the call center.

Providers are working hard to correct this and to match the “E911” standard for location information. The E911 program – due to be completed December 31, 2004 – was mandated by the Federal Communications Commission to increase the location-proffering capabilities of cell phones.

Under the E911 program, when a call comes into an emergency center, the caller’s phone number and physical location is displayed. AT&T plans on rolling out the service nationwide this year, and Vonage has a test program in Rhode Island right now.

Complicating the problem is that the 911 center technology is operated by the local phone carriers, according to Brooke Schulz, a spokeswoman for Vonage, and getting them to open up their technology to competitors has been challenging.

“We’ve asked every phone company for access,” to 911 centers, says Schultz. “We’ve only received a response from Bell South. They want to talk with us but in the meantime they said to get a CLEC certificate – essentially become a registered phone company.”

The only reason Vonage has a trial running in Rhode Island is because the state owns and operates their system, says Schulz.

As the Johns case and the subsequent lawsuit makes clear, the issue of 911 compatibility is one that continues to plague the VoIP industry. All the companies contacted for this article – Vonage, Skype, AT&T, and Free World Dialup – were aware of the problem and took great pains to detail their efforts to educate consumers and implement technological fixes.

“The industry is working on closing the gaps between [land line] and IP-based services,” says Gary Morgenstern, a spokesperson for AT&T. “But until there’s a uniform solution, you’ve got to provide clear and conspicuous notices.”

Both parents in the Johns incidence survived the shooting and are recovering, but obviously the notices in that case weren’t observed. Should someone die as a result of 911 incompatibility on a VoIP-based phone, companies can expect a lot more uproar than one state filing a suit.

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