research director, IDC Canada

The imminent availability of 911 emergency calling services for voice over IP (VoIP) phone systems is likely to heat up competition in the telecom space, according to a senior Canadian analyst.

A Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruling making it mandatory for VoIP service providers to offer these services has removed a major obstacle to the adoption of VoIP and wireless technologies, said Lawrence Surtees, director, telecom and Internet research at IDC Canada Ltd.

“Emergency access is more than just a public benefit, it is lifesaving,” he said, welcoming the ruling.

According to Surtees, the CRTC decision will also level the playing field for telecom carriers. “It makes competition a little stronger over the long haul.” …in the long term they may end up reaping the benefits, as it makes it easier for Canadians to adopt [VoIP] as their primary phone line.Lawrence Surtees>Text He predicted that providers of alternative telecom technologies such VoIP and wireless would eventually benefit, and disagreed with the claim that regulating VoIP would curtail its growth in the Canadian market. “It is a short-sighted and erroneous argument.” It’s true the CRTC ruling will cost service providers some money, the analyst said, “but in the long term they may end up reaping the benefits, as it makes it easier for Canadians to adopt [VoIP] as their primary phone line.”

Pannaway Technologies Inc., based in Portsmouth, NH, has incorporated emergency 911 service access into its VoIP offering. Its Primary Line VoIP system provides an emergency connection that is always available through a remotely powered backup phone line that runs transparently to the subscriber.

Mike Skubisz, Pannaway’s chief technology officer, said providing a 911 service-enabled technology makes it easier for VoIP vendors to partner with wireline carriers, allowing them to “take advantage of the favourable economics that VoIP delivers without sacrificing their statutory obligation.” He said the perception that VoIP service should not be governed under the same standards as traditional phone companies is “flawed”.

Pannaway’s 911 service currently functions on fixed VoIP calls, which are made from a specific location within a local exchange area.

In its April 4, 2005 decision, the CRTC gave VoIP service providers 90 days to make basic 911 or enhanced 911 (E911) service available to subscribers for local VoIP or fixed address calls.

Under traditional circuit-switched technology, basic 911 calls are routed to a public safety answering point (PSAP), a specialized call centre for emergency calls covering a specific geographic area. The PSAP agent typically sees only the caller’s phone number and directs the call to the appropriate agency.

Under E911 service, on the other hand, PSAP agents can obtain the caller’s name, address and other pertinent information through the Automatic Location Information (ALI), downloaded from the local exchange carrier database. This service is helpful in situations when the caller is unable to verbally communicate his location.

For nomadic or mobile VoIP calls, however, the CRTC’s order gives providers 90 days to implement “an interim solution, which provides a level of service functionally comparable to basic 911”.

Under nomadic VoIP service, subscribers can make a call from any location that has access to broadband Internet service.

There are technical challenges in providing 911 services with nomadic calls, according to the CRTC decision. Handling 911 calls from a mobile VoIP subscriber poses certain difficulties such as possible routing to the wrong PSAP and getting inaccurate ALI, especially if calls are made outside of the customer’s local exchange area.

One solution, proposed by Call-Net Enterprises Inc. and Comwave Telecom Inc., is to route nomadic 911 calls to an independent call centre. Agents can then determine the caller’s location as well as the nature of the emergency, and transfer the call to the appropriate PSAP or emergency services agency.

This third-party call centre solution, according to the CRTC, provides benefits that are similar to basic 911 service.

Skubisz admitted the nomadic issue is a challenge VoIP proponents still have to resolve.

Related links:

CRTC holds public VoIP hearings

CRTC looks at VoIP regulation

Telcos ask for more time with CRTC VoIP regulation

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