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E911 and VoIP: Location, Location, Location

Sunday, April 20, 2008

As you probably know by now, VoIP services like voip.com must, by law, provide E911 service to you as part of the normal service. That means when you dial 911 from your telephone connected to our service, 911 service will operate more or less as it would from a landline with your local exchange carrier, connecting you with the appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP) and communicating your location information to them.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. However, there are a lot of moving parts that make this difficult. The first issue is: where are you?

One thing that E911 communicates to the PSAP is your physical location. This is fairly straightforward with a traditional local exchange carrier. They know what pair of wires you're coming in on. They know exactly where that pair of wires is located. They know precisely what PSAP(s) it should use to relay your call.

In the case of VoIP providers, there are no physical wires. All calls come in over IP. How does a VoIP provider know where you're calling from? Fairly simple: you have to tell them. As part of your residential service on voip.com, you must divulge the physical location where your service will be used. Other services require similar disclosures.

Because of the difficulties and complexities of connecting into the 911 infrastructure, voip.com and other providers outsource the E911 parts of their operations to third parties. These third parties handle figuring out which PSAP to communicate your 911 call to and what data to communicate to the PSAP.

Unlike a traditional landline situation, where the wires are basically in the ground and can't easily be moved, an analog telephone adapter is relatively straightforward to move from one place to another. While that makes it convenient for the customer, it can wreak havoc when you dial 911. It is therefore very important that you keep your location information up-to-date, else 911 may send help to the wrong address.