Following an incident in Houston in which a Vonage subscriber was unable to reach 911 in an emergency, the Texas Attorney General has filed suit against Vonage. The suit seeks suitable notice to subscribers about the (rather crippling) deficiencies in Vonage’s 911 service.
There are a few problems with the way that Vonage currently handles 911, and I’ve been warning people about them for a couple of years. The first is that, by default, dialing 911 simply plays a recording saying “you don’t have 911.” You have to activate 911 service before you can use it, and apparently Vonage doesn’t make this clear enough to new subscribers. Further, it takes several days after such a request before 911 service becomes active.
The second problem is that 911 calls (with very rare exception) are routed to an administrative number for the emergency center, not the 911 operators themselves. So, the person answering the phone isn’t able to actually dispatch emergency services; in fact, by and large, they’re simply a secretary without any emegency training at all. A correlary to this is the fact that, in many locations, calls to Vonage’s 911 service outside of business hours will simply go unanswered.
The third and final problem is that (once again, with rare exception), Vonage has no technical means to transfer location information to the emergency centers. Even a very technical friend of mine using Vonage as a primary line replacement was unclear on this fact. She thought that the fact that she gave her address to Vonage in the process of 911 service activation meant that the 911 center would have this information available, and Vonage did nothing to inform her otherwise. So, even people working in the VoIP industry lack the knowledge to figure out this information; what hope does the average consumer have?
Don’t get me wrong. As long as you can wait until business hours to have your unexepected emergency, have figured out that you need to register for 911 with Vonage, aren’t in the multi-day activation period, limit yourself to emergencies that leave you physically and mentally capable of giving your location, and don’t mind untrained personnel fielding your emergency calls, then using Vonage as a primary line replacement is just fine. And that may be good enough for some people. But I agree that it needs to be a choice people make for themselves with adequate information.