Saturday, January 27, 2007

911 Via VOIP

Because I live in Florida, a place which has a tendency to get hit by house-destroying weather a couple of times a year, a working and efficient 911 service is quite important to me. I had assumed that the home VOIP guys would have 911 down and that the service would operate the same way as my good old PSTN-based landline 911. Not so. Here’s what I learned today from one (potential) VOIP provider.

Firstly (and most obviously), if VOIP is all you have at home, and the power goes down on either your PC, or broadband service provider, you’re screwed. Which is why many VOIP providers recommend you don’t tell your long-standing PSTN provider what you think of their service and throw out that cell phone or “AT&T beige” handset - yet.

But what about normal service during normal times? It turns out that VOIP-based 911 is a little different than its more-sophisticated brethren - wireless and PSTN 911. Both the wireless (cell) and landline services operate in “enhanced” mode, providing operators with instant access to your location, and (according to one of my sources), multiple databases of information, including previous emergency call data, number of occupants, and, on many systems, even the number of gun licenses registered to that home address. If you have wireless or landline service, 911 provides probably the most advanced system you could possibly connect to in your lifetime.

VOIP, however, operates a little differently - or, more specifically, e911 (the emerging VOIP emergency standard) operates a little differently. For starters, many VOIP providers do not have the ability to route calls directly to 911 operators -these calls are first routed to an e911 number, which is then often routed to the PSAP (Public Safety Access Point) administration line *not* the emergency line you’re in dire need of.

And while some services do have the location information you provided during service sign-up to them, others do not - and require the caller to specify their location. Which isn’t exactly great if you’re choking to death, or four years old, and haven’t yet memorized the home address.

I personally don’t view this as a big VOIP “insecurity” (watch for an upcoming post on caller ID spoofing/phishing for that). But I did find this interesting enough to post, and will be keeping my cell phone close by (and keeping my BellSouth PSTN line active) for when the next hurricane hits.

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