Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project
VoIP: 911 Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

In 2005, the FCC required that all VoIP services that interconnect with the public telephone network must provide 911 service. According to the FCC,

In 2008, the US Congress codified the FCC's actions with the NET 911 Improvement Act. In this Act, the US Congress set forth the following:

Geography and the Internet becomes a particular problem for VoIP services.

Telephone carriers are required to provide Enhanced 911 (E911) emergency services where the operator receiving the call is provided with the location of the caller, even where the caller is unable to speak. This works fine for a traditional fixed landline network where the Customer Premise Equipment (aka telephone) does not have a habit of going across town and plugging into someone else’s network. It works for mobile telephone networks - sort of, but has required considerable time and investment. VoIP, particularly nomadic VoIP, poses unique problems.

The issue of 911 unpacks into two parts. First, identification of the location of the caller. Second, how the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) is made aware of that information.

911 Call Steps

See an excellent diagram of a 911 call: Answering the Call for 911 Emergency Services in an Internet World, Voice on the Net Coalition, p. 4 (Jan. 2005)

As a result of VoIP service providers marketing their phones as "replacement phones" for traditional phones, and as a result of some unfortunate events that transpired when those "replacement phones" did not act like traditional phones during emergencies when victims attempted to dial 911, [See Texas] the FCC ordered "Interconnected VoIP providers" transmit all 911 calls along with registered location of the caller to the PSAP. See FCC VoIP 911 Order for details.

VoIP service providers face multiple problems at many of those steps:

Where VoIP telephone service is provided as a fixed service, such as service offered by some cable operators, those services avoid these problems and work with the 911 system much like traditional phones. In this situation, the location of the caller never changes and can be directly inputted into the ALI (an advantage of having the VoIP caller’s information in the ALI database is that this permits validation with the Master Street Address Guide). [Intrado Evolution of PSAP Experience Slide 13]

The rub is when voip services are “nomadic.” The Internet does not provide reliable geolocation information. [Nuvio Slip at 4 "unlike traditional and wireless telephone service, there are no means yet available to easily determine the location of a caller using Interconnected VoIP providers."] Geolocation techniques based on IP number blocks, domain names, and other information can give a probabilistic answer that someone is likely at a given location - and this can be a valuable service for serving up ads or detecting fraud. However, this information is neither sufficiently reliable nor sufficiently specific for 911 purposes. This creates a problem both for identifying where the caller is, and identifying geographically the appropriate PSAP to deliver the call to.

911 solutions for nomadic VoIP have been broken down into three phases: I1, I2, and I3. The important contrast for purposes of this paper is how the location of the caller is identified so that it can be conveyed to the Public Safety Answering Point.

In the I1 solution, the location of the caller simply is not automatically conveyed to the PSAP. In many I1 solutions, the VoIP service provider does not have a direct 911 connection to the PSAP. Instead, when an individual dials 911, the call is routed to a normal administrative line at the PSAP – which may or may not have trained emergency personnel answering those calls - and which may or may not even be answered after hours. In addition, some service providers required that this kludge be activated by the subscriber before it will work. [Nuvio Slip at 3, Sec. 1] This (not necessarily well disclosed) difference between traditional 911 service and VoIP 911 service resulted in conflict.

One issue is whether VoIP service providers can gain access to the telecommunications tandem that connects to the PSAP. Because VoIP service providers have not (yet) been found to be telecommunications services, they do not have the right to interconnect with the telecommunications network. However, according to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, "the record contained evidence that major ILECs were cooperating with nomadic IVPs and “increasingly offering E911 solutions that allow VoIP providers to interconnect directly to the Wireline E911 network through tariff, contract, or a combination thereof.”" [Nuvio Slip at 15, Sec. II.b.]

In I2, a VoIP 911 call is routed over the PSAP telephone trunk and directly to the emergency operators at the PSAP. The VoIP service provider participates in ALI and the location of the caller is provided to the PSAP in the ALI response. Where the service is nomadic, an ALI solution could look like the E911 solution for mobile phones, where ALI consults the service provider to determine the location of the caller. [Von p. 8] [Intrado Evolution of the PSAP Experience] [Intrado Next Generation Needs] [Intrado Emergency Calling Services]

Note that the I2 solution still does not place geography into the Internet. The geolocation of the call is made know to the PSAP by accessing an off-the-net database ALI. Only the PSAP consulting an off-net database would know this location. It would not be available for other purposes. Other applications, such as the World Wide Web, or email, would have no interface with this database.

The I3 solution is a pure IP solution. Instead of going through the PSTN PSAP trunk, the VoIP 911 call would be routed over an IP network to the PSAP. A new protocol for the information provided to the PSAP operator would be in place and more useful information could be delivered both to the operator and then to the first responder. Also, unlike legacy PSAPs that are hard wired into the network and cannot move, if it is necessary to move an I3 solution PSAP, utilizing IP the new location of the PSAP would be announced to the network and new IP calls could efficiently be routed to the new location. Movement of PSAPs is difficult under legacy PSAP structures.