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.
Sosamma and Peter John survived last month’s attack. Had their daughter reached police on the first call, the gunmen would have been caught, said Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott.
“Lives were in jeopardy and almost lost because these people had signed up for telephone service through Vonage and had no idea of their inability to access 911,” said Abbott, who filed the suit.
Vonage believes that it provides more than adequate information and follow-up notices to make sure customers take the extra steps necessary to activate their 911 calling features, said company spokeswoman Brooke Schulz. She said the company would work with Abbott’s office to settle the case.
Only a small fraction of the nation uses VOIP service -- about 1 million, compared with about 135 million conventional phone lines. But that share is growing rapidly; consulting firm Yankee Group estimates that the number of broadband phone customers will nearly triple in the coming year and exceed 17 million by 2008.
By sending voices over high-speed Internet connections as packets of information, like e-mail, broadband phone subscriptions can be far cheaper than conventional service. Many offer advanced features and do not require a computer to work.
But technological advances are happening so fast, Abbott said, that consumers aren’t always aware of the shortcomings. They often must pore over small type and wrestle with complex technology just to get basic phone service, he said.
Joyce John is one who has come to expect a simpler system. “From an early age, [you learn that] if you have any problems ... [you] immediately call 911,” she said in a taped interview with Texas investigators that Abbott’s office provided.
Vonage was surprised by the suit, spokeswoman Schulz said. The company provides 911 information on its website and requires customers to activate it separately -- at no extra charge -- to make sure calls for help will be routed to emergency operators nearby.
“If we notice that you have not activated it,” she said, “we send you e-mails periodically to tell you to activate it.”
Notification is only the beginning of problems that broadband phone users may have with 911 service, Abbott contends in the suit.
Even with 911 service activated, for example, Vonage customers may be connected not to a dispatcher, but to local police administrative offices that are open only during business hours.
Moreover, 911 may be useless if customers take advantage of a feature that allows them to use their broadband phone service at the office, the local coffee shop or a hotel in another country. Calling 911 on a visit to New York, for example, would mean sending police to your home in Los Angeles.
Today, most VOIP companies offer basic 911 services and many are moving to enhanced 911, which gives police the caller’s address and phone number.
By comparison, about 93% of the nation’s conventional telephone customers have enhanced 911 service.
Industry experts disagree over how to ensure that Internet phone customers get equal access to 911.
Vonage’s Schulz says local phone carriers are denying broadband operators access to their 911 networks.
Phone companies such as SBC Communications Inc. control the routers and trunk lines to 911 dispatchers as well as the databases that store names and addresses.
Others say the technologies are incompatible.
“Our 40-year-old 911 network was not intended to work with Internet services,” said Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of Voice On the Net Coalition, a trade group for VOIP firms.
SBC, though, said it had a new system that let VOIP companies dump customers’ addresses and phone numbers into SBC’s 911 database.
The system has been criticized as too costly for low-end VOIP companies. But “to claim there is no technical solution ... or that a remedy is down the road is bogus,” said SBC spokesman Dave Pacholczyk. “We have a product in place.”