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May 16, 2005

Vonage and 911

Because of shortcomings in the way Vonage handles 911 calls, I would not recommend the service as a replacement for a primary PSTN line.  The Vonage terms of service say: “You acknowledge that Vonage does not offer primary line or lifeline services. You should always have an alternative means of accessing traditional E911 services.”  Since cellphones are also not a reliable way to get 911 service, this leave a PSTN line as the only alternative.

This does NOT mean that I think that the FCC should require VoIP providers to duplicate the 911 service which is provided by traditional phone companies.  If Vonage has been negligent in informing customers about the limitation of its 911 service, then that negligence, if any, can and I’m sure will be remedied through the normal US tort process and/or by enforcing standard consumer protection regulations.

Two weeks ago Vonage made news by raising $200 million of venture capital.  This week the Wall Street Journal reported on a Florida family who dialed 911 on their Vonage phone and were allegedly unable to reach emergency services (story is here but requires a subscription).  Their daughter was dead, according to the story, by the time help arrived.  Om Malik reported this story and possible implications for Vonage a week ago (you CAN read that without a subscription).

The furor about this and the possibility of over-reaching regulation by the FCC as reported and energetically defended against by Jeff Pulver led me to read what Vonage actually says about its 911 service and, in the process, to activate 911 for my Vonage account.  Up until now, I have not activated 911 and I DO have a backup PSTN number.

Vonage is clear in both its printed documentation and on its website that there is a difference (except in Rhode Island) between the 911 it offers and what you get from a traditional phone company.  The most important differences they spell out are that:

  1. you have to tell Vonage where your phone is physically located in order to activate 911 (fair enough since you can move the phone to any IP connection in the world);
  2. your location will not be available to the 911 service;
  3. your phone number may not be available to the 911 service;
  4. your call will be routed to a 911 administrative number rather than the emergency service people who normally get 911 calls.

I have to admit I didn’t read all of that initially but that’s my fault.  Besides being in the documentation, all of this is presented clearly and forcibly when you do activate 911 on Vonage.  However, then things get a little murkier.

When you activate 911, you get a scrollable dialog with the 911 terms of service which you are urged to read and which you must accept to sign up.  These terms of service are dated April 25, 2003.  They include this warning:

“You acknowledge and understand that there may be a greater possibility that the general telephone number for the local emergency service provider will produce a busy signal or will take longer to answer, as compared to those 911 calls routed to the 911 dispatcher(s) who are specifically designated to receive incoming 911 calls using traditional 911 dialing.”

The terms of service you see during 911 signup also make clear that “Vonage shall not be liable for any failure to provide the 911 Dialing service.”

However, when you look at the general terms of service accessible by clicking “Terms of Service” on the Help Page of the Vonage account holder website, these terms of service, which are dated October 15, 2004 – later than the terms referenced above – have more to say about 911 and liabilities. 

First the recommendation from Vonage: “You acknowledge that Vonage does not offer primary line or lifeline services. You should always have an alternative means of accessing traditional E911 services.”

Second is this disclaimer.  “You acknowledge and understand that 911 dialing from your Vonage equipment will be routed to the general telephone number for the local emergency service provider (which may not be answered outside business hours)…”  The part in parenthesis does not appear in the terms of service you see when signing up for 911.  According to the WSJ, this is what happened in Florida: the call was routed to a number which was answered by a recording which said “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.”

A third major difference is that the overall terms of service contain this provision: “You agree to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Vonage, its officers, directors, employees, affiliates and agents and any other service provider who furnishes services to Customer in connection with this Agreement or the Service, from any and all claims, losses, damages, fines, penalties, costs and expenses (including, without limitation, reasonable attorneys fees) by, or on behalf of, Customer or any third party or user of Customer's Service relating to the absence, failure or outage of the Service, including 911 dialing and/or inability of Customer or any third person or party or user of Customer's Service to be able to dial 911 or to access emergency service personnel.”

I am not qualified to give legal advice.  However, this sounds to me like it says that, if Vonage is sued by a guest in my house for the failure of my Vonage-provided 911 service to work, I have agreed to pay Vonage’s legal bills and indemnify them for any fines or penalties.  Remember, this is in the general terms of service and not those presented to me when I activated 911 so, presumably, this applies whether or not I have activated 911.  This is part of the terms of service of being a Vonage customer.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know which terms of service apply.  They don’t contradict each other.  The general terms of service that you DON’T see when you sign up for 911 both have broader disclaimers AND the phrase about us indemnifying and holding Vonage harmless.  And the general terms of service also say: “This Agreement and the rates for Services found on Vonage's website constitute the entire agreement between you and Vonage and govern your use of the Service, superseding any prior agreements between you and Vonage and any and all prior or contemporaneous statements, understandings, writings, commitments, or representations concerning its subject matter.”

I believe that informed consumers should have the right to choose the services they want.  I do not believe consumers will be served well if the FCC imposes impossible requirements for 911 service on VoIP providers. An article on the same day in the WSJ points out that less than half the United States “still lacks the technology to find cellphone callers in distress” despite the fact that third of all 911 calls come from cellphones.

Vonage and others are involved in efforts to make VoIP 911 better.  Some day, I believe IP 911 will be much better than what is delivered on the PSTN.  However, it is not as good today.

I also believe that consumers have a right to be informed.  That’s what the regulators should concentrate on.

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