Ofcom: VoIP services must allow 999 calls

Under proposals published by the communications watchdog, VoIP phone services must offer access to the emergency number by early 2008

VoIP phone services must allow users to make 999 emergency calls, under proposals published by communications watchdog Ofcom.

VoIP services are increasingly adopting the look and feel of traditional telephones, which increases the risk of confusion as to whether users have access to 999, said Ofcom. This means any VoIP service allowing users to make calls to ordinary phone numbers must also offer access to the emergency number by early 2008.

Research by the communications watchdog has revealed that 78 percent of VoIP users who cannot use their service to call 999 either thought they could, or did not know whether they could.

Ofcom is concerned that if, in an emergency, VoIP users had to locate a landline or mobile phone because their VoIP service didn't offer 999, they might face a delay in getting help, which could prove critical.

Some VoIP providers — for example BT and Vonage — already allow users access to 999. For other VoIP providers, Ofcom estimates the cost of allowing their users to call 999 is likely to be around 90p per household per year.

The number of households who say they have used VoIP telephony has grown rapidly — from around 1.2 million households at the end of 2005 to around 2.4 million households at the end of 2006. But Ofcom's research shows that only 64 percent of UK households with VoIP use a supplier that provides 999 access.

Ofcom divides VoIP services into four main types: peer-to-peer services that make and receive calls to other PCs; 'VoIP out' services that allow users to make calls to ordinary phone numbers but not receive them; 'VoIP in' services that allow users to receive calls from ordinary phone numbers but not make them; and full-service VoIP, which allows users to make and receive calls to and from ordinary phone numbers.

Under Ofcom's proposals, providers of VoIP out and full-service VoIP would be required to offer access to emergency services.

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