Why VoIP and pizza don't mix

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.