911 is a joke for VoIP customers.

911 is a joke for VoIP customers.

911 is a joke for VoIP customers.

Inside the Internet.
Sept. 8 2004 6:00 PM

This Is an Emergency

911 is a joke for VoIP customers.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

When I called 911 one recent evening to report a mugging, I expected one of those fast-talking emergency operators. Instead, I got a lecture.

"Hello," a woman said.

"Hello," I said. "Is this 911?"

"No," she said.

After some prodding, she revealed that she did work for the New York Police Department. "911 is near here," she added unhelpfully.

Before I could report the mugging, the officer had her own report to make. "Is your carrier Vonage? Someone needs to make a complaint about them," she said. "I'm not an emergency operator. If you was to become unconscious, I don't have your address. This isn't good."

I've been a happy Vonage subscriber for a bit under a year now. Vonage is the leading American provider of Internet telephone service (also known as Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP). The base of my phone, a standard cordless model, plugs into a featureless black box, which in turn plugs into my modem. That black box turns my voice into packets of data, which are carried over the Internet, then linked back into the regular telephone system. I pay $15 a month, down from the more than $40 I was paying Verizon. Plus, I can plug in my black box when I travel, allowing me to make and receive local New York calls if I'm in Texas or Latvia.


Verizon still beats Vonage in an emergency, though. When you dial the magic three digits from a standard land line, your call travels to a local switching station, then bounces to a dedicated network reserved only for 911 calls. This special emergency circuit also links the call to the "Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification" database of phone numbers, names, and addresses. Plugging VoIP into this system isn't easy.

While land-line 911 calls travel on the copper wire that makes up your local phone system, a Vonage call starts online. VoIP calls enter the phone system through a local gateway that converts digital packets of sound into the analog signals that make up a typical phone call. If police responding to a VoIP 911 call tried to link the gateway's phone number to a physical address, they wouldn't find an emergency, just a room full of humming servers plugged into telephone lines. 

VoIP companies have come up with a solution to the gateway problem. Vonage has figured out how to program its servers to attach caller ID to outgoing calls—my calls, for example, show my 718 area code and phone number.But that only works if I don't take my black box to Texas or Latvia.