By Cade Metz in San Francisco for The Register. This story has been reproduced with permission.
Last week, as reported by the CBC, a Calgary family dialed 911 via their internet phone service when 18-month-old Elijah Luck went into medical distress. Their VOIP provider, Comwave, then dispatched an ambulance to the family's former home in Mississauga, Ontario, more than twenty-five-hundred miles away.
After waiting over half an hour, the family said, they made another emergency call from a neighbor's land line phone. An ambulance arrived within six minutes, but the toddler was later pronounced dead at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
"This is a first for Canada, and it's a tragic one," Paul Godin, a spokesperson for te Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the country's telcom regulator, told The Reg. "This was a very young boy."
Comwave did not respond to requests for comment. But according to the CBC, the company did not have the family's latest address on file, and it says that customers are responsible for providing the company with updated emergency information. This is confirmed by Godin.
With traditional phone lines and so-called "fixed" VOIP lines provided by cable operators, emergency calls are automatically routed to the nearest 911 call center. But certain "nomadic" VOIP services don't map customers to a physical location, and 911 calls must be routed manually.
"With nomadic 911, calls are channeled to an answering service provided by your VOIP company," Godin explains. "And that answering service channels your call to a 911 call center. So it's a two step approach, rather than the one-step you get with a regular land line."
Elijah Luck's aunt, Sylvia Luck, said that when she dialed 911 via Comwave's service, no one answered after five rings. Then she received a call back from a call center than Comwave contracts with in Concord, Ontario. Sylvia Luck said she gave the family's Calgary address to the operator, but the ambulance was sent to Mississauga.
The CRTC is investigating the call, but won't share details until the investigation is complete. "We're just going over the recording of the emergency call now and we need to analyze that before we make a statement one way or another," Godin tells us.
The commission's rules require nomadic VoIP providers to explain their 911 procedures when a customer signs up and remind them of the procedures at least once a year. Elijah Luck's family switched to Comwave's service three years ago, after moving to Calgary from Mississauga.
"If I'm the nomadic vendor, I have explain to the customer the limitations of my 911 services," Godin says. "And the customer to sign a form that says they understand the shortcomings."
The CRTC is also working on a plan to improve nomadic 911 services. "We want to make this as good as other 911 services. We're going through the various steps to make this happen. We need to have everyone involved in the emergency systems to cooperate in providing the right technology and we need to make sure the technology works. The question is who will pay for this infrastructure upgrade."
© The Register 2008