RealTime IT News

VoIP: Almost a Killer App

WASHINGTON -- Internet telephony has often been called the killer app for broadband services. For Peter John, his wife Sosamma and their teenage daughter Joyce, it was almost literally true.

Last month, intruders burst into the John's southwest Houston home, robbing and shooting the couple while their daughter frantically used the upstairs Voice over IP line to call 911.

"Stop, you must dial 911 from another telephone. 911 is not available from this telephone line. No emergency personnel will be dispatched," a recording told the daughter.

Fortunately, the Johns survived the attack, and emergency personnel did arrive after their daughter went next door to call for help from a traditional landline telephone.

John Melcher, the executive director of the Houston 911 emergency network, brought the recovering family to Capitol Hill today to underscore what he called the good and the bad of emerging IP-based services.

"This family's experience typifies the American consumer's relationship with new and innovative IP-enabled services and the dramatic impact these services have on public safety," Melcher told the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Melcher added, "Call it what you may, grace of God, good fortune or karma, the John family experience with [VoIP] broadband telephone service is a compelling yet harrowing story about the benefits of IP-enabled services while highlighting the need to formulate a forward plan for the future of emergency services in this country."

The testimony highlighted a long, tedious hearing on VoIP, covering much of the same ground as previous Internet telephony examinations by other House and Senate panels, as well as the ongoing IP-enabled services review at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"VoIP is the harbinger for the ultimate product for consumers in communications services: geographic number portability. VoIP combines low cost with flexibility by allowing a New York-based talent firm to have Los Angeles area code numbers without the exorbitant costs associated with foreign exchange mileage and usage charges," Melcher said. "The benefits for parents with children attending far away universities, elderly parents on limited incomes and other similar consumer scenarios are easily envisioned."

The downside of 911 services, however, is that the Internet-based VoIP service's location is determined entirely by the end user. Unlike traditional telephone service, VoIP users can place a call from any broadband connection.

"This is problematic for both consumers and public safety," Melcher said. "Consumers have a reasonable and realistic expectation that access to 911 services is available to any communications service that is being touted as a replacement for [traditional telephone service]."

Melcher testified that after years of public safety education, the American public expects that access to 911 services is "not only ubiquitous it is also automatic. That is, the consumer need do nothing more than request communications services. Providing location of service is an alien and foreign concept to many consumers."

Further, Melcher added, 911 personnel have come to depend on the public's knowledge of 911 to "pattern operational practices to optimize their response to emergency incidents."

This change of roles for both consumers and 911 personnel, Melcher said, will prompt a new extensive public safety educational campaign.

"This educational process may address immediate needs but may have the unintended consequence of diminishing the relevance of 911 in the public's eye," he said. "We are leery of any campaign that says, '911 is the number for emergencies except if you use VoIP.'"

As groundwork for this year's planned telecom reform in Congress, the Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee held the hearing to measure the progress of VoIP since it burst upon the Washington scene a little more than a year ago.

Since then, the FCC has ruled that VoIP is an interstate service not subject to state rules and regulations, and that companies providing Internet telephony must comply with federal wiretap requirements. The agency is still studying the 911 obligations of VoIP carriers and the potential contributions carriers might be required to make to the Universal Service Fund.

"VoIP is still in its infancy and the regulatory ground upon which VoIP stands is not as firm as I think it needs to be in order that it reaches its projected potential," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee, said. "I would note that only seven individuals -- five FCC commissioners and two federal district court judges -- stood in the way of VoIP potentially being regulated by 51 state public utility commissions."