Here’s a term that you may have never seen before – or may have just recently started to notice: “VoIP” or “VOIP”. It stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol”, and it refers to the process of sending telephone calls over the internet. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is! We currently have a huge analog phone infrastructure that handles telephone calls. That can all go away as voice is transmitted over the Internet just like any other data.

So if you’re not conversant with this new technology, I’d suggest you take a few moments and read some of these articles. VoIP is here and it will affect your life.

  • December 2003 – Here’s a brief introduction to VoIP by Cheryl Heppner.
  • February 2004 – VoIP is really taking off, and we need to ensure that it remains accessible to people with hearing loss. The accessibility issue was raised at a recent FCC Forum on VoIP.
  • July 2004 – Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is here and growing. And it’s threatening YOUR telephone access!
  • October 2004 – One of the issues with VoIP has been that the 911 system can’t automatically determine the location of VoIP callers. Now that issue seems to be resolved.
  • May 2005 – The FCC rules that VoIP providers must provide reliable 911 service, and must also be able to identify the location of the caller.

VoIP: A New Term for Your Vocabulary

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: As you would expect, Cheryl is on the technological leading edge with her article on VoIP. It’s here today and it WILL affect your life. We’ll be running several stories on VoIP over the next few weeks, and we encourage you to take the time to read and understand them.

VoIP Has Arrived

You’ll be hearing more and more about VoIP or VOIP, which stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol. Our current telephone systems (called PTSN for Public Switched Telephone Network) and the Internet are merging, faster than anyone could have predicted. VoIP, with its ability to transport voice, data and video over the same network, was introduced 8 years ago. The same rapid growth experienced by cell phones is now hitting VoIP, with sales of Internet-enabled phone systems expected to grow 80% by the end of this year according to Duff McDonald’s “Say Hello to the Next Phone War’ in TIME magazine’s December 8, 2003 issue.

Watch for equipment from companies such as Avaya, Citel, Mitel, NEC, Nortel, and Siemens and networks from companies like Cisco and 3Com. The field is becoming so hot that traditional telephone giants like AT&T, BellSouth, Qwest, Sprint, and Verizon are already offering some sort of VoIP.

How VoIP Works

Duff McDonald describes how VoIP works:
“Instead of using traditional ‘circuit-switched’ phone networks, which utilize a dedicated connection between callers, companies can digitize sound waves, divide them into packets of data and send them over a data network the same way you would send e-mail. VOIP first gained prominence in 1995 as geekware. The initial draw: avoiding long-distance charges — a concept known as ‘toll bypass’ — by steering clear of the ‘public switched-telephone network.'”

The technology has matured to the point where it is not only saving money but also able to increase productivity. Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friiss of Sweden have developed Skype software (http://www.skype.com) that works with a $15 headset to make free phone calls anywhere in the world to someone else who has installed the same software. In 2004 they expect to improve the software to allow free calls to even none Skype users.

What About Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons?

VoIP raises some serious issues for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. It has been headed in the direction of continuing a long and depressing history of telecommunications innovation that has left us behind — beginning with Bell’s invention of the telephone that gave new freedom to hearing people instead of his goal of helping invent a breakthrough for deaf people. We’ve been pushing our relay services, equipment manufacturers, and cell phone providers to help us catch up.

911 calls made over Internet often get lower priority

October 2004

Editor: We’ve been following the explosion of Voice over IP (VoIP) phone service since it entered the mainstream, and we’ve warned our readers that there are some drawbacks to the service. One is that 911 systems can’t automatically detect the caller’s location. Now it seems that issue has been resolved, and at least one VoIP service provider is incorporating the new technology.

Reprinted with permission.

ST. PAUL (AP) – Emergency calls made using new Internet telephone services ring in through a emergency line and often aren’t answered immediately, according to an official who runs Ramsey County’s largest 911 emergency call center. Fred Fischer, a St. Paul police officer, added that the Internet emergency calls usually are more difficult to handle because the 911 operator must ask the identity and location of the caller. In a normal 911 call, that information automatically pops up when the operator answers the call.

“The benefit of the 911 system is that we know your location in the event that you can’t speak to us,” Fischer said. “We don’t get that with the Internet calls.”

Conventional wired phones are being displaced by a new technology called Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP. VOIP uses a high-speed Internet connection to provide phone service instead of a conventional telephone line. But the technology is creating some problems for 911 operators.

VOIP service, which provides extensive or unlimited local and long-distance calling at discounted prices, converts the voice into digital bits that are transmitted over the public Internet or a private data network. The bits are converted back into a traditional phone signal just before the call reaches its destination.

Emergency officials say Vonage and AT&T’s Call Vantage service have the difficulties Fischer describes, while Time Warner Cable’s new Internet phone service doesn’t.

Vonage didn’t return a phone call to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. AT&T said it’s working on the problem.

“We recognize there are concerns out there, and we will resolve them,” said Kerry Hibbs, an AT&T spokesman in Dallas. “We make very clear to our customers that our Call Vantage Internet phone service does not work the same as traditional landline 911.”

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to rule in the next few months on whether Internet phone service should be regulated. If the FCC decides VOIP should be regulated, it must set up requirements for services such as 911, said Steve Seitz, spokesman for the National Emergency Number Association, a Washington professional organization for 911 operators.

At the same time, the FCC is expected to tell regional Bell telephone companies such as Qwest how much access to their 911 call-handling networks they must provide to VOIP companies. Qwest has told the FCC it would rather have the telephone and VOIP companies work out their own 911 policy, said Mary LaFave, director of public policy for advanced services, based in Denver.

Technical improvements for VOIP companies are being developed by Intrado Inc. of Longmont, Colo., which helps Vonage and AT&T connect their VOIP 911 calls to emergency call centers in the nontraditional way. Intrado, one of about a half-dozen such 911 intermediary firms nationwide, said it hopes to introduce a new service next year that will help VOIP providers connect to the traditional 911 calling network.

Such changes can’t come soon enough for Nancy Pollock, executive director of the Metropolitan 911 Board, a St. Paul organization that oversees 911 service for the seven-country metropolitan area.

She’s been upset by occasional 911 lapses, such as the routing of 911 Internet telephone calls to the wrong answering location.

“It’s fairly misleading, in our opinion, to say that all Internet telephone service is 911 compatible,” she said.

But some Internet calling is 911-compatible. Time Warner Cable’s new Internet phone service, which is being tested and should be available within 90 days, routes 911 calls via Qwest’s conventional 911 network to the nearest call center. As a result, the caller’s name, address and phone number automatically appear on the 911 operator’s computer screen.

That’s mostly because Time Warner has agreed, for now, to be regulated by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and has been certified by the commission as a company authorized to compete with Qwest for local telephone customers. That designation gives Time Warner access to a special Qwest call routing network for 911 calls.

For now, emergency officials want consumers to understand that VOIP 911 calls may not be as good as they think.

“VOIP is a wonderful thing, and it allows you to make long-distance calls dirt cheap,” Fischer said. “But I don’t think the sellers of those services always make their customers aware that they are not getting true 911 service.”.

VoIP Providers Must Provide Reliable 911 Service

If you’re among the 1.5 million people who have switched to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service, you’ll probably be happy to know that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is requiring that within 120 days, VoIP service be able to successfully complete 911 calls, and that the dispatcher be able to determine the location of the caller.

You may be surprised to learn that VoIP is currently under no such requirement.

The ruling follows the death of a Florida infant, whose mother was unable to complete a 911 call using her VoIP service.

Location determination and 911 connectivity are issues with VoIP, because the service is theoretically available from any Internet connection. About half of VoIP customers get service from their cable television providers, who typically do provide 911 compatibility and location determination, because a customer’s cable service is available only at one particular location.

Unaffected by this ruling is the much broader question of whether VoIP service will be regulated as a telephone service or as a data service.

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