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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 5:09 PM Three CEOs Step Down in 30 Minutes
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 5:43 PM Oracle’s Larry Ellison Steps Down, Will Be Replaced by Hurd’n’Catz
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.