Industry regulator Ofcom has this week announced that from September 2008 operators of Voice-over-IP services will be required to provide access to the '999' emergency services number.
There has been much discussion within the industry about the issue of emergency calls for operators. Some operators have expressed concerns about the stability of VoIP for life-of-death situations since it relies on an Internet connection which is more likely to fail than a simple phone line. This is further complicated by the arrangements that need to be put in place by operators to ensure a consistent and reliable access to '999' emergency services, which can also be dialled by using the '112' code more frequently seen in the rest of Europe. It is also more difficult to transit location information since a VoIP user could be located anywhere in the UK (or indeed the rest of the world) when making the call.
"We welcome this announcement, as most of the business VoIP provider community have been working towards compliance with the 999 regulations and will be fully compliant well in advance of September. Safety of life is a very serious requirement for our customers and a key differentiator for businesses buying VoIP services."Peter Gradwell, gradwell dot com Ltd.
Ofcom's decision to require access to emergency services has been made because of the confusion that consumers face with the ever merging of phone and Internet services. It will be more and more difficult to discern whether a telephone call is routed over VoIP or the traditional PSTN network, especially for someone who doesn't understand the technology or isn't aware of the specific setup at a location. Ofcom point out that a "delay of seconds" could result in increased harm and given this risk in the context of rapid take-up of VoIP services, it was essential to act now. Until now, providers were expected to inform consumers through stickers on phones or messages that emergency calls were not supported. Ofcom's research has shown that in its October 2006 survey, 78% of households believed they could call 999 from their VoIP service, even though this was not possible on the services they subscribed to.
Providers of "click-to-call" services (where you can call a limited number of destinations by clicking on a website form), and services which only allow dialling of international numbers are excluded from the regulation since it was believed that there would be less likelihood of confusion.