Seventeen-year-old Joyce John frantically grasped the portable phone and dialed 911. Downstairs, her parents struggled with two armed robbers.
“Joyce, Joyce, call the police!” her mother, Sosamma, screamed. But when she did, she heard this message: “Stop. You must dial 911 from another telephone.”
Joyce grabbed another phone downstairs but got the same recording. She finally banged on the door of a neighbor, who called an ambulance. By then, her parents had been shot. They survived, but their attackers fled.
The problem: Joyce tried to call from a phone with Internet-based technology, known as VoIP, for voice over Internet protocol. Even though the family’s VoIP service provided a basic 911 feature, Joyce’s father, Peter, didn’t realize he had to activate it.
The ordeal, which happened last month in Houston, points up a challenge for Internet-based phone companies as they struggle to provide 911 service to their growing base of subscribers.
Some VoIP providers don’t offer 911 at all. More typically, those such as Vonage and AT&T offer a bare-bones 911 service that doesn’t show operators a caller’s number or address. And it doesn’t ring on the emergency phone lines in the dispatch center. As a result, some 911 centers don’t accept the calls.
Several VoIP providers do offer a full-featured 911- called Enhanced 911, or E-911 - that’s akin to the 911 feature most consumers have today with regular phone service. But it sometimes costs extra.
Vonage, the No. 1 VoIP provider, has been working with states, 911 directors and local phone companies to bring free E-911 to customers. Its efforts have bogged down, though, partly over regulatory hurdles.
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