Are You Protected by 911 With VoIP?

Make sure you understand VoIP 911's inherent risks

911 is the U.S. emergency services number; it's the equivalent of the European Union's 112. Enhanced 911, or E911, is a potentially lifesaving GPS-enabled smartphone feature that automatically shares a caller's location with emergency personnel. But if you're using VoIP technology, calling for emergency help isn't as cut and dried. Here's what you need to know about VoIP and 911.

If you're traveling, be sure to check the emergency services number for the country you're visiting.

911 call on a cellphone
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Interconnected VoIP vs. Non-Interconnected VoIP

Whether or not you have access to 911 depends on if your VoIP service is interconnected or non-interconnected.

Non-Interconnected VoIP

Non-interconnected VoIP, also known as "peer-to-peer" VoIP, lets people call others using the same VoIP app. When you talk to a friend via Xbox Live or another gaming system, for example, you're using non-interconnected VoIP. You wouldn't be able to call the friend's smartphone or landline phone.

Interconnected VoIP

Interconnected VoIP services use the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to make and receive calls to and from smartphones and landlines. Among other features, interconnected VoIP services provide 911 functionality.

How Does Interconnected VoIP Handle 911?

The FCC requires interconnected VoIP services to offer 911 as a standard feature and not let users opt-out. These services have to comply with E911 standards, which means they must obtain and transmit their customers' physical locations and callback numbers whenever possible to the emergency services teams at the nearest 911 call center.

Because users can make VoIP calls wherever they can find an internet connection, the 911 call center can't know exactly where they are unless they've registered their VoIP device to a specific physical location. This means it's up to the user to register their physical address with their VoIP service provider and notify and update their address with the provider if they move.

Service providers are supposed to make this an intuitive process, but it's still the user's responsibility to keep the system updated.

Inherent VoIP 911 Limitations

Even with the FCC's directives and VoIP services' cooperation and best intentions, there can be problems accessing 911 via VoIP:

  • 911 calls via VoIP may not work if there's a power outage, or the call may drop if there's an internet outage.
  • If a user doesn't update their physical location with their VoIP provider, 911 emergency teams won't be able to find them.
  • There may be a problem automatically transmitting a caller's physical location to the emergency responders, even if the caller is able to reach the 911 call center.
  • A VoIP 911 call may go to an unstaffed call center administrative line, or be routed to a call center in the wrong location.

The FCC requires VoIP service providers to explain these potential VoIP 911 limitations and problems to their customers, so they're aware of possible risks. Users must acknowledge that they understand and accept these risks.

How Do Top VoIP Providers Handle 911?

Each VoIP service provider does its best to properly handle 911 services for its customers. Here's a look at what some top providers say about 911 calls.

Vonage

Vonage stresses the importance of customers maintaining an accurate physical address so that 911 services can reach them. You'll need to activate a physical 911 address, and the company makes it easy to update this address via your Vonage account. Dial 933 from your Vonage phone to check your 911 activation status at any time.

The scope of Vonage's 911 services differ depending on your location and whether you're using Vonage on a mobile phone or landline. Some customers will receive E911 functionality, while others will be able to access only basic 911 and must be prepared to share their address and contact information with the call center.

RingCentral

Like Vonage, RingCentral offers basic or E911 services, depending on your location and device. You'll need to register your physical location with RingCentral and notify the company if you move. If you use the RingCentral app to place a 911 call, your wireless provider will handle the call if service is available.

Line2

Line2 requires users to add their physical address to their Line2 account via a web browser or its iOS or Android apps.

Intermedia

Intermedia also offers basic and enhanced 911 services, but stresses that it's the user's responsibility to keep the company apprised of an accurate and updated physical location. Intermedia warns users that factors outside of its control, such as network congestion or hardware and software problems, may limit the call's effectiveness.

The Bottom Line

While VoIP 911 functionality has greatly improved since the early 2000s, users should understand that the process has inherent limitations. If you're primarily using a VoIP service for most of your calls but are concerned about the potential risks of VoIP 911, consider keeping a landline or mobile phone handy.

For more direct help during an emergency, keep the phone numbers for your local public safety dispatcher or police station prominently handy.

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