In a telecom decision handed down by the CRTC on Wednesday, the regulatory body has issued a regulation that ensures local Voice over IP service providers and resellers abide by current 911 regulations or risk getting put out of business.
The federal regulator has been attempting to reign in the VoIP service providers ever since the high-profile death of a Calgary infant in 2008 got the ball rolling. National attention was brought about when 18-month-old Elijah Luck died in the Alberta city after an ambulance was mistakenly sent to a city in another province. The problem was that emergency operators couldn’t determine the location of Luck’s parents because they’d placed a 911 call using an Internet phone. They updated their billing address correctly when they moved to Calgary from Mississauga, Ontario, but emergency services still had their former address on file.
Back in 2008, VoIP was a relatively new technology and folks were still figuring out that calls to 911 didn’t work in the same fashion as on regular phone systems.
With VoIP, most customers had “basic 911” service. This meant that a call to 911 would place them in touch with a call centre that takes down the address and subsequently contacts the nearest emergency services centre. VoIP subscribers are identified by IP addresses, not specific geographical addresses. In the event that a 911 call placed over VoIP is disconnected for any reason, operators had no recourse except to find the last known address of the caller from the VoIP service provider.
Now, the CRTC doesn’t monitor or police the VoIP resellers but their regulatory arm does extend to regulated carriers, like Bell for instance. With the new ruling, the regulator can impose contractual obligations on VoIP service providers that sublet phone lines and can order a regulated carrier to disconnect services if they don’t follow the 911 rules.
The rules now include the clear informing of customers as to any limitations with respect to 911 services offered on said VoIP home phones, especially during power outages. Companies must also inform consumers about limitations with respect to so-called nomadic VoIP phones, which are VoIP phones not fixed to a physical address. Nomadic VoIP phones don’t have any global positioning or other software that can help determine geographical location, so the problems in the context of 911 are clear.
In the latest estimate from the CRTC, using data from 2009, there were some 161,000 VoIP phone lines in Canada. The percentage of that number that amounts to so-called nomadic phones is expected to be relatively small, but it’s still an issue that needs addressing.