Why VoIP and pizza don't mix

Why VoIP and pizza don't mix

Summary: So there I was, craving a pizza and dialling my local Domino's for a BBQ Meat Lover's special.


So there I was, craving a pizza and dialling my local Domino's for some BBQ Meat Lover's special (if you're not into the pizza thing, this is a carnivore's delight, sprinkled with every kind of meat and lathered with BBQ sauce; fortunately, I am led to believe, beer neutralises the high fat content).

All went fine until the phone operator asked whether I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. "Pick up", I responded, since when I want my pizza I want it now. "Will that be from the Grattan Street, Carlton branch near Melbourne University?" he asked.

Now, on a normal day, that would have been fine; Domino's was using my broadcasted phone number to determine my location and advise which was the closest branch. The only problem: I live around 20km from there, and there are half a dozen Domino's that are closer.

The reason for their mistake, I quickly realised, was that I was placing the order on a VoIP line -- which carries the phone calls from my house to a gateway, then dumps them onto the public phone network. That gateway, I gather, is located in the CBD, near the aforementioned Domino's outlet. So when the 13xxxx service, which has long been designed to connect people to their nearest outlet, got wind of my location it naturally decided I was a CBD dweller.

Worse still, when I asked for the direct number of the local shop, I was given a number on the other side of the state -- suburb confusion I suppose.

I ended up unplugging the VoIP phone, plugging it into the normal landline extension, and calling back -- which instantly connected me to the nearest store. (Yes, I understand Domino's is rolling out online ordering and offers a store locator but when you're hungry it can be hard to think rationally).

My point is this: when it comes to location-based services, VoIP presents some novel problems indeed. If I had had a real emergency, and not just a gastronomic one, this would have presented potentially life-threatening obstacles. And that, one must concede, doesn't bode well for the prospects of VoIP as a complete landline replacement.

VoIP lines aren't the only phones obfuscating details of the caller's location; mobile phone users have long had to deal with this issue, since there's no ready way to tell from an 04xx number just where the person is -- or even whether he's in the country.

Finding out which base station the phone is connected to provides a starting point for some crafty triangulation that can work in extreme cases, but given that landline replacement VoIP lines don't move very much you'd think there was a way around this.

Regulators are grappling with this same issue, recently highlighted by Australian Communications and Media Authority head Chris Chapman, who warned VoIP providers to improve their access to 000 and to clarify just what service compromises VoIP imposes.

The problem with calling 000, of course, is that the location conundrum will mean there's no way the emergency services can actually find out from where you're calling. So while many VoIP operators do now provide access to 000 (and many still don't), you're still going to have to clearly explain your location -- which can be difficult when you're, say, trying to get away from a fire or trapped under the rubble caused by the pizza delivery guy jumping the kerb and driving through your lounge room picture window.

I took this issue to Steve Picton, CEO of GoTalk, which includes VoIP among its broad range of telephony services. His assessment was blunt: "I think the train has left the station" in terms of using phone numbers as location identifiers, he explained.

GoTalk, he added, allows customers to pick a local number from a selection of more than 2200 around the country -- which might solve the pizza problem -- but these numbers still aren't tied to a specific address.

It's all part and parcel of choosing a VoIP service. For now, Picton believes the largely technical clientele moving wholeheartedly to VoIP understand its limitations: "from a consumer perspective, and we're assuming we're talking here technically adept people, I'm sure people use it to benefit rather than negative and put up with a small amount of inconvenience," he said. "The vast majority of people using VoIP are using it as a secondary service; the issue has now passed and people are just going to have to put up with it."

That's fine for now, but it doesn't take a genius to know that people aren't going to be as ready to switch to VoIP as their primary voice service if they perceive they won't have the same access to the same critical services they do with a conventional line.

Technical solutions are of course possible -- the most obvious is an opt-in database for VoIP customers that ties their street address with their VoIP number, so that 000 and 13xxxx numbers work properly. But who is going to implement and maintain this database?

This sort of thing can be done -- just look at how the carriers managed to get local number portability working -- but don't expect the top-tier telcos to help out in this one, since they already hate VoIP.

Perhaps a group of well-meaning VoIP providers can get together and start formulating just such a database, backed by an industry plan that will show Australia they're serious about matching landline capabilities.

Do it right, VoIP industry, or people will vote with their stomachs.

Have your location-based needs been foiled by VoIP? Got any other suggestions on how to resolve this issue? Have your say below.

Topics: Unified Comms, Government AU


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Locating mobile phone numbers

    Au contraire. Mobile numbers can accurately be located by the network operator by triangulating* the mobile's signal from different towers.

    Currently, calls to 000 use MoLI (Mobile Location Information), which is only a very broad locator (can be within a few thousand sq km, say about 50 km x 50 km). However, in the U.S. similar services have an accuracy of within a few hundred metres. ACMA is working on similar things in Australia for the future.

    * Actually trilaterising, but nobody calls it that.
  • Locating mobile phones

    This assumes the phone user has coverage by more than one tower which you will see from rural Australia coverage maps is not that often.
  • e164.org

    I had this delema recently, however a little bit of looking in the right direction and I found e164.org and ENUM lookups. This site has a number of uses including registering your PSTN line with your VOIP account so people can call you on VOIP for free, but they only need to know your normal PSTN number.

    Another feature is Non-Geographic lookup feature which converts a 13x number to a real PSTN number, based on a reference number that you supply. Currently this is populated by members, but the partential is there to reduce the VOIP costs as most 13x numbers encur a higher cost.

    Unfortunately, not many VSPs support ENUM lookups, however I eventually found voxalot.com that allows to forward your call to your existing VSP after processing the rules that you set up include ENUM lookups. After setting up my local Domino's Pizza its been working fine.

    I hope this helps everyone who is trying to implement VOIP.
  • VOIP and Real Locations

    Surely, if people use VOIP with a laptop, via their nearest WiFi connection, because they travel a lot, the location, just keeps changing.

    So its best to just ask people where they are ;-)
  • Technical fix

    As a VoIP user and someone who sets up VoIP services for other people, I've been aware of this problem for a while. With a quality VoIP gateway, like a Billion 7404, you configure it to make 000 and 13 calls (and some others) on your PSTN line (and wear the 25c fee Telstra charges).

    As the previous Talkback poster has mentioned, you cannot rely on the user of a VoIP service to be at a fixed location.
  • PSTN Fallback

    As mentioned, PSTN fallback enabled VoiP systems are the way around this, providing you still have the line (ie: not Naked ADSL or cable). These are a little more costly but if your internet is down, you can still make calls, so a added benifit. It just takes some extra time and effort to set them up to know how you want them to work (ie:use the normal phone line for ordering pizza ect).

    A side note of the ordering with VoiP, but think about the rural users of VoiP. most VoiP providers only have numbers in capital cities, so dialing a pizza for them has them connecting to a store several hours away (might be a little cold even if they did try to deliver it).
  • Emergency Services

    We don't have a perfect soluton to this one but a positive step in the right direction would be for Australia to follow the lead of the FCC in the USA.

    You won't die if you don't get your pizza but you will if the emergency services don't know where you are and this article is a good one to raise.

    Read on for the solution (not to the pizza, but for saving lives)

    In May 2005 the FCC adopted rules for emergency calls from a VoIP service after a woman died because she was unable to talk to the operator.

    They gave us adequate lead time to implement the systems and processes requird before the legislation became mandatory.

    I had my own VoIP company over there and we had to inform customers signing up of the limitations of VoIP (not just 911 but also power outages etc.).

    We would record their physical location in our database and pass it on the the regulators who would then update the emergency call centres.

    When clients moved they would inform us of the change of location and again we would send to the regulators. In the early days of implementation most of us were charging $2.95 pm due to the initial set-up costs of compliance but many have now just included it in their model.

    It's must be made law here and I find it disappointing to see Australia so far the behind the 8 ball again. Will people will have to die before the Gov't takes action?

    The Gov't implemented the Do Not Call Register as an opt-in service. There is absolutely no reason why they cannot implement mandatory e911 regulations and put the onus on the provider to collect the location and pass on the details. That is of course where the liability must end for the provider as liability is then passed up the food chain to the regulators. It is also the customers responsibilty to update the provider if there details have changed and again provider must update the regulator and so on, it's very simple.

    I would advise all providers to remind their customers via their online toolbox, company newsletters etc from time to time so as to protect themselves and be a good corporate citizen.

    Mr. Picton, with respect your view is narrow sighted.

    Do you want GoTalk all over the the news as the 1st VoIP provider in Australia to 'cause' the death of a customer?

    Or, would you like GoTalk in the news as the innovative company that cares for it's customers by lobbying the Gov't to implement e911 legislation?

    I know which one I would prefer!

    Get pro-active and don't wait for a death to occur on your watch. I assure you it just a matter of time before it will happen here in Australia and you are playing a game of russian roulette with the other providers right now.

    Take the lead, the path has already been set and the model works in the US and the costs can be passed on to the customer.