Ofcom proposal to require VoIP providers to offer '999' service
Ofcom has this morning announced a consultation on requiring VoIP operators (i.e. companies offering telephone calls via the Internet) to offer access to the emergency services via the '999' operator in the same way as on standard land lines. The requirement would apply to those companies who offer services which allow calls to be made to normal telephone numbers, so those who only offer calls to other VoIP users are likely to be exempt.
At present, VoIP operators can voluntarily offer 999 services but there are requirements placed on them which have discouraged some from doing so due to costs implementing the system. This has caused confusion with customers not being sure whether their VoIP phone will allow them to make 999 calls or not, which could cost precious minutes in an emergency. Ofcom has already required the companies to inform users if they cannot make such calls from their phones. It is also important to note VoIP services tend to rely on electricity so their use as an emergency phone is already more limited.
"All VoIP providers are very supportive of the need to connect 999 calls, but OFCOM need to balance idealism and realism. It would be impossible to put all the VoIP operators through the BT acceptance testing in such a short time frame, not to mention hugely expensive".Peter Gradwell, gradwell dot com Ltd.
Ofcom believes the position has now changed because:
- Since the previous consultation, there has been an increase in VoIP use with 10% of UK households having used VoIP in Q4/06
- Developments are making VoIP technology "look and feel" like traditional phones (indeed some mobile phones can now make VoIP calls)
- A significant proportion of VoIP consumers were confused about whether they would be able to dial 999, many thinking they could when they could not
VoIP is not really the ideal platform to make emergency calls over at this point in time, but this change could still assist many in emergency situations. We would always recommend that a land line is used where possible and if one is not available, a mobile phone should be the second option. If you do use VoIP, be aware of the risks and ensure your provider has your up-to-date address information they can pass to the 999 operator.
The Ofcom consultation can be found here.