VoIP and 911

An interesting case in Texas that highlights the weak spot in the whole VoIP thing:  Net Phone Firm Vonage Sued Over 911 Access, reports the LA Times:

As two gunmen forced their way into her Houston home Feb. 2, Sosamma John yelled to her daughter, Joyce, to call the police. Joyce ran upstairs, grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Instead of getting a police dispatcher, the frantic teen got a recording telling her that 911 wasn’t available from the family’s phone.
Joyce escaped the house to call from a neighbor’s — but not before the gunmen had shot her parents and fled.

On Tuesday, the state of Texas sued Vonage Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest Internet-based phone service provider, for allegedly failing to make clear that 911 calls weren’t included in a basic subscription.

The lawsuit highlights a challenge for the exploding business of Internet-based telephone service: Consumers attracted by the cheap rates may be giving up full access to emergency operators.

It also shows Internet phone companies and federal regulators, who are taking a hands-off approach to so-called voice over Internet protocol service, that state authorities are willing to step in with consumer-protection laws at their disposal.

It’s hard to imagine that VoIP services couldn’t provide some sort of emergency access, so perhaps this might be a blip. Or else it’s the thin end of a regulatory wedge that makes the whole cheap phone call thing a flash in the pan.

Smart Phones Have To Be Dumb

I’ve been giving a Treo 600 a run for its money in the past couple of months and I’m impressed. Yes, I know that there’s a new one out and I’m way behind the curve, but my theory is that these products need to be not just good, but super reliable if they are going to fulfill their main purpose: Be a phone.

The thing is this. It’s great being able to do all this stuff on a gadget not much bigger than a cellphone, from checking email, to downloading RSS feeds, to taking photos, to playing Boggle, to instant messaging, to having SMS dialogs appear as IM chat threads. Great, wonderful. But what happens if you need to make or take a call and the whole thing freezes up?

That’s what happened to me again this morning when I was trying to take a call from my friend Colin. For sure, it was just another one of those ‘whatcha doin’?’ type calls, but what if it had been an ailing relative desperately trying to get through? Or I needed to call 911 or its local equivalent?

For me, smart phones have to be, first and foremost, dumb phones. They have to work as a phone, all the time, before they do anything else. If they don’t do that with reliability, then folk are going to start thinking twice about having everything else packed into it. Indeed, there’s still a lot to be said to having a small cellphone that just does cellphone stuff, and then another gadget that does all this other stuff.

The Rise Of The Gadget That Does It All

Seems the rise of the gadget that does everything is inexorable.

A press release from LG Electronics in Korea (sorry, no URL available) says that according to its survey of telecommunications experts gathered at Busan ITU Telecom Asia 2004, 95% said that it was either very likely or somewhat likely (73% and 22% ) that consumers will eventually choose a single converged 3G device (combining phone, camera, video camera, MP3 and others) over multiple devices. Three quarters of these folk expect this to happen within two years.

Apart from the obvious features, what else might these converged devices contain? More than half of the experts said they wanted “digital keys” to open their car, home or office, a quarter wanted a personal security device such as a panic alarm or electric shock function. These features were selected from a list of possible new functions which included image scanning and a calorie calculator.

For what it’s worth (and it’s clearly not worth very much), to me, a phone is a phone is a phone. We had another bomb in our town last week, exploding outside an embassy and killing about 10 people. It’s then that you realise what your phone is primarily there for: To keep you in touch with loved ones, the office, sources, etc, and your brain quickly downsizes and needs simplicity. Who could dial 911 in an emergency on a super smart phone with lots of features, or could sit around while the software reboots, or could scroll patiently through lots of submenus if they hit the wrong keys?

Yeah, I know, this doesn’t happen very often, but it’s one reason why I’ve kept my cellphone real simple.