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Internet Phone Firms Ordered to Ensure 911 Service

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Federal Communications Commission today ordered all Internet phone companies to offer direct access to 911 emergency switchboards. The commission said it was responding to complaints from consumers. Many were surprised to find they could not reach emergency operators. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Regulators have been singing the praises of so-called Voice over IP in recent months as a cheap alternative to traditional offerings. But today the FCC heard horror stories about one of the technology's shortcomings. In March, Cheryl Waller of Deltona, Florida, tried to call 911 from her Internet phone after her three-month-old daughter stopped breathing.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Ms. CHERYL WALLER: I dialed 911 several times. Each time I called, I reached a recording that stated, `Hang up and dial 911.' I was unable to reach emergency services of any kind. In an absolute panic, I was forced to locate a neighbor to dial 911 from a different phone.

ABRAMSON: But medics could not revive Waller's baby, and she died. Other users had similar stories. The problem for Voice over IP companies has been that business started booming before these phones were hooked up to the 911 system. Some consumers have found they have 911 access, but it only connects to administrative phones that are not staffed at night or on weekends. Pressure from the public and from emergency officials led FCC Chair Kevin Martin to demand a rapid response.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chair, Federal Communications Commission): Your stories are poignant and certainly unbelievably troubling, definitely. The experiences demonstrate why the commission must act now and why we can't wait any longer.

ABRAMSON: Consumer horror stories singled out Vonage, the leading Voice over IP provider. The state of Texas has also sued Vonage for allegedly misleading users about 911 access. But Vonage and other companies say they welcome the requirement. Vonage has been trying to negotiate 911 access but complains that local phone companies have been standing in the way and, in some cases, refusing to cooperate. Vonage spokesman Chris Murray says he hopes the new mandate will end any opposition.

Mr. CHRIS MURRAY (Vonage Spokesperson): So far everyone has come to the table, and they're cooperating, I think, because they realize that public safety is not a competitive lever. It's something that we have to do because it's the right thing to do for the public.

ABRAMSON: The new rule will give Voice over IP providers about four months to connect to 911 switchboards. This requirement could end up being good for business since it removes one of the major uncertainties about Internet telephony. But consumers who take their Internet phones on the road won't be able to call 911 unless they give their provider advance notice. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.