The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has a new weapon in its regulatory arsenal to crack down on Voice over Internet Protocol service providers that fail to comply with federal rules for 911 services.
In a decision issued Wednesday, the CRTC effectively forces local VoIP service providers and resellers to abide by 911 regulations or risk being shut down. It is the latest step by the federal telecom regulator to toughen up its emergency service rules following the high-profile death of a Calgary baby in 2008.
While the CRTC does not formally police VoIP resellers, it is making it mandatory for regulated carriers, like Bell Canada, to impose tough contractual obligations on VoIP service providers that sublet their phone lines.
That means the regulator now has the power to order a regulated carrier to disconnect the service of wholesale customers or subordinate resellers that skirt the rules with respect to VoIP 911 service.
Some of those mandatory obligations include clearly informing consumers about any limitations of 911 service from VoIP home phones during power outages.
Similarly, companies must also inform customers about any inadequacies of 911 service when using "nomadic" VoIP phones, which are Internet phones that are not necessarily fixed to a particular address.
For example, a consumer can use a nomadic VoIP phone when travelling by plugging it into a high-speed Internet connection.
There are, however, limitations to using 911 service with those portable devices because an emergency service operator cannot automatically identify a caller's geographic location. That could pose a problem in medical emergencies when a caller is unable to speak and readily communicate with first responders.
Unlike cellphones, nomadic VoIP phones do not contain a global positioning system or GPS to identify a caller's location.
There were 161,000 VoIP phone lines in Canada in 2009, which is the latest estimate from the CRTC. It is unclear how many consumers use nomadic VoIP phones, but the number is believed to be relatively small.
For its part, the CRTC has taken concerted steps to toughen up the rules for how 911 calls are handled using Internet phones in recent years. The issue captured national attention in 2008 when 18-month-old Elijah Luck died in Calgary after an ambulance was mistakenly dispatched to a city in another province.
During that incident, emergency operators could not determine the correct location of the boy's parents who had placed a 911 call using an Internet phone.
While the family had updated their billing address, the emergency services address on file was that of their former home in Mississauga, Ont. As a result, an ambulance was sent to the wrong address.
Last month, the CRTC announced it was conducting a three-month trial that will use text messaging to improve the accessibility of 911 emergency services for people with hearing or speech problems.
That trial project was the result of a collaboration by public safety experts, telecom companies and individuals with hearing and speech impairments following the regulator's accessibility decision in 2009. Acting chairman Leonard Katz has said technical and operational information from the trial will help the commission determine whether it can expand the program across Canada.