June 24, 2024

Is the FCC Ruling Out VoIP on PCs?

The FCC has issued an order requiring VoIP systems that interact with the old-fashioned phone network to provide 911service. Carriers have 120 days to comply.

It won’t be easy for VoIP carriers to provide the 911 service that people have come to expect from the traditional phone system. The biggest challenge in providing 911 on VoIP is knowing where the caller is located.

In the traditional phone system, it’s easy to know the caller’s location. The phone company strings wires from its facility to customers’ homes and offices. Every call starts on a phone company wire, and the phone company knows where each of those wires originates; so they know the caller’s location. The phone company routes 911 calls to the appropriate local emergency call center, and they provide the call center with the caller’s location. One big advantage of this system is that it works even if the caller doesn’t know his location precisely (or can’t communicate it clearly).

Things are different in the VoIP world. Suppose I’m running a VoIP application on my laptop. I can make and receive VoIP calls whenever my laptop is connected to the Internet, whether I’m at home, or in my office, or in a hotel room in Zurich. My VoIP endpoint and my VoIP phone number can be used anywhere. No longer can the carrier map my phone number to a single, fixed location. My number goes wherever my laptop goes.

How can a VoIP carrier know where my laptop is at any given moment? I’m not sure. The carrier could try to see which IP address (i.e., which address on the Internet) my packets are coming from, and then figure out the physical location of that IP address. That will work well if I connect to the Net in the simplest possible way; but more sophisticated connection methods will foil this method. For example, my VoIP network packets will probably appear to come from the Princeton computer science department, regardless of whether I’m at my office, at home, or in a hotel somewhere. How will my VoIP carrier know where I am?

Another approach is to have my laptop try to figure out where it is, by looking at its current IP address (and other available information). This won’t work too well, either. Often all my laptop can deduce from its IP address is that there is a fancy firewall between it and the real Internet. That’s true for me at home, and in most hotels. I suppose you could put a GPS receiver in future laptops, but that won’t help me today.

We could try to invent some kind of Internet-location-tracking protocol, which would be quite complicated, and would raise significant privacy issues. It’s not clear how to let 911 call centers track me, without also making me trackable by many others who have no business knowing where I am.

Tim Lee at Technology Liberation Front suggests creating a protocol that lets Internet-connected devices learn their geographic location. (It might be an extension of DHCP.) This is probably feasible technically, but it take a long time to be adopted. And it surely won’t be deployed widely within 120 days.

All in all, this looks like a big headache for VoIP providers, especially for ones who use existing standard software and hardware. Maybe VoIP providers will take a best-effort approach and then announce their compliance; but that will probably fail as stories about VoIP 911 failures continue to show up in the media.

Of course, VoIP carriers can avoid these rules by avoiding interaction with the old-fashioned phone network. VoIP systems that don’t provide a way to make and receive calls with old-fashioned phone users, won’t be required to provide 911 service. So the real effect of the FCC’s order may be to cut off interaction between the old and new phone systems, which won’t really help anyone.


  1. I am not sure about the telecom part of the problem, but I assume IP’s can easily be translated to its grographical location.

  2. As a business user of voice over IP, I find the governments attempt to regulate this particular issue a bit troubling. New technologies will be burdened by old ways of thinking. I know going into my business relationship with my voice over IP vender I will not have 911 service.

  3. Michael,

    Solutions like packet-tracing work in simple cases, but they break down when people start using Virtual Private Networks or various kinds of address rewriting technologies. If I call 911 from my laptop, they can send the police to my home, but I could just as well be anywhere; and regardless of where I am, my packets would appear to enter the Internet at the same place. It’s all a question of what degree of accuracy the FCC demands.

  4. There are various kinds of VOIP-to-landline services, some of which use a standard computer’s mic and speakers/headphones, some of which use external cordless phones [usually connected to a “magic” box or similar]. The latter could include GPS devices in them, I suppose.

    As for PC-to-Phone gateways, 911 calls could be routed to a state or province-specific VOIP call center, which would redirect to one in a local county/city/region.

    If that fails, there could be a “service availability” issue, where if you call 911, and you’re connected to the internet via DialUp, Cable or DSL, then the packets could be traced to your ISP, which should have your address on file. If you’re on a wireless network (e.g. cellular or 802.11b/g or other) then the wireless signal could be intercepted and triangulated via the VOIP provider (or a GPS/triangluation type system could be implemented in the next wireless standard for computers).

    But yeah, this won’t be implemented in 120 days as of article posting. I wonder, though, what about the guys up in Canada? Do they have as many problems to deal with?

  5. Pete Austin says

    Here’s a simple solution…

    Before you first use a VOIP system each day, the system should insist that you enter your real-world location.

    The system holds this information in a database (or config file) and passes it along with any 911 call.

    Yes, I can see the limitations. And let’s hope nobody has got in there first with a stupid patent.

  6. It seems to me that there are 2 911 requirements:

    . 1) That the call be directed to a “close” center

    . 2) That the caller’s location be identified with ??? feet.

    The first seems to be do-able (perhaps with some delay) by software in the ISP or Wireless hub. They should be able to determine within reasonable bonds where a computer is and thus not sent the call to Timbuctoo? — I would advise that ISP’s, hardware, and programs, implement some 911 protocal so that 911 calls are processable specially and support close routing. based on the ISP (wireless) location.

    The second is obviously an impossible problem, within the range of a wireless network, and probably will, if supported will requre the user to enter their location, and have the 911 message carry that as well as the ISP/Wireless estimate.

    My Discussion area: Software-voip –> http://wematter.blogspot.com/2005/05/software-voip.html


  7. Brandt Kurowski says

    So the real effect of the FCC’s order may be to cut off interaction between the old and new phone systems, which won’t really help anyone.

    I don’t agree that it won’t help anyone. Cutting off interaction between the old and new phone systems will certainly help prolong the life of many long distance carriers.

  8. Jordan Vance says

    An interesting problem indeed. I haven’t jumped on the VoIP bandwagon as of yet, if but for the simple fact that I don’t use the telephone at home. Ever. Cell phone only. Causes a pain when I try to get credit cards, but c’est la vie. An easier solution? USB GPS, similar to the GPS in my cell phone. Or rather, the Location identifier. Not exactly sure what it is. Yes, there are plenty of problems with this idea (cost, feasability, etc). But so long as we are throwing ideas out there… If location identification is mandated for all VoIP, then perhaps this could be some extra data that gets sent along with each emergency call.