It seems that VoIP just crept up overnight and became an instant success. Yet VoIP has been around for a lot longer than many people realize. VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. It is the ability to transfer audio as data packets over the Internet and to an awaiting computer, VoIP phone, or even to a standard telephone.
The reason that VoIP has gone without vast amounts of regulation is that VoIP is a completely different technology then the telephone system that we have come to know for the past 100 years. Standard telephone is known as PSTN or the Public Switched Telephone Network. It requires the use of Circuit Switching networks connected through wires. Many Federal regulations have been initiated and set in place regarding the use of the PSTN telephone system. However, due to the fact that VoIP is technology based on Packet Switching and is transferred over the Internet, Federal regulations had not been initiated concerning this technology and in fact, the government is in a sense playing catch up to regulate VoIP services and providers.
The need for regulation became apparent when several VoIP users had issues when trying to use the 911 services. Because VoIP does not use landline wires, VoIP is not incorporated with the Public Safety Emergency 911 system. When users call 911 from a landline phone the dispatcher will see a display of the callers location and address. However, when a caller with a VoIP service calls 911 no information is displayed. This is a serious concern. Especially since in critical situations, a 911 call may be made, and then the caller, for whatever reason cannot give any further details, the 911 operators will then typically trace the call and send help. However, with a VoIP service provider, they will not be able to trace the call and send any help to the person who placed the call.
This issue was addressed previously in regards to cellular phones. The FCC had instigated the Enhanced 911 program and by working with cellular networks has been able to initiate technology that will locate on a cellular antennae’s signal when a 911 call is placed.
Currently many VoIP service providers do not offer 911 service, others do offer Enhanced 911 but the system is no where near perfect. It is recommended that VoIP users contact their service providers and find out what steps they need to take to activate and register their information with 911. However, even if a subscriber has their information registered with 911, and places a phone call to 911 away from their residence, the dispatcher will have no way to trace the phone call. It is suggested that VoIP subscribers continue to maintain a landline connection for the sole purpose of using 911. Another suggestion is to carry a mobile phone again for further tracking if an emergency call is needed. If you do need to call 911 from a VoIP phone, you should begin by giving your local information, regarding your location immediately.
The FCC had issued a regulation that all VoIP service providers who did not have their subscribers sign a statement that they were aware of the 911 limitations inherent with VoIP would be cancelled from their VoIP service. However the FCC has issued a continuance to allow more users to sign the statement. Where this issue will ultimately end up is a matter of “wait and see”. I don’t think the government ever expected VoIP to gain in strength and popularity. Currently VoIP services are being offered by not only providers who specialize in VoIP but also mainstream telephone companies are now offering VoIP services and products. Verizon has just released Voice wing- their VoIP service. Even Cingular wireless has started a mobile wireless or VoWiFi service.
It may be a few years before we see all of the issues with VoIP worked out, but undoubtedly most of the resolutions will come about through the FCC, court rulings, and from the government taking a long hard look at the very infrastructure of VoIP and finding its legal place in the midst of a telecommunications system that has remained in tact for nearly 100 years.