Texas Sues Vonage Over 911 Calls

Texas' Attorney General sues Vonage, claiming the company is misleading consumers about its 911 services.
The Texas attorney general slapped Voice over IP provider Vonage Holdings with a lawsuit Tuesday [March 22], claiming that Vonage misled consumers about its 911 emergency services.

The lawsuit, filed by Texas AG Greg Abbott, seems to hold Vonage to blame mainly for the company's aggressive advertising, including its claims that VoIP can replace "traditional" telephone services. Since Vonage customers must take extra steps to register their numbers to make 911 services work, it is "misleading, false and confusing" to advertise VoIP as a traditional phone service, the lawsuit claims. The state is seeking penalties of $20,000 for each violation of the perceived transgression.

Vonage, which is busy trying to track down more technically inclined opponents, was caught offguard by the lawsuit and is scrambling to respond. Brooke Shulz, Vonage vice president for corporate communications, forwarded to reporters screen shots of service-registration Web pages where Vonage customers are informed about how the company's 911 services function, noting clearly that customers need to register their numbers to make 911 services work.

To press its point, the Texas attorney general's press release related details of a recent VoIP 911 horror story, involving a house break-in in Houston.

In its press release Tuesday, the attorney general's office said: "The dangers posed by Vonage's failure to clearly disclose the lack of traditional 9-1-1 access surfaced last month when a Houston family that subscribed to Vonage's service tried to call 9-1-1 during a home invasion. Two victims were shot multiple times, but the victims' daughter was never able to get through to 9-1-1."

Jerry Strickland, press secretary for the attorney general's office, said the lawsuit is based entirely on the single case referenced. "That [the Houston case] is the only complaint we've heard of," Strickland said. Strickland also said that the Public Utility commission of Texas has told the AG's office that it has heard "some calls about this [issue]," but that the commission did not formally record the complaints. When asked to clarify how many calls "some" meant, Strickland said it was far less than 100 calls.

To its credit, Vonage has been trying to proactively defuse the 911 concerns by working as closely as possible with the incumbent service providers, mainly the regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), who control the dedicated routers at Public Safety Access Points that are the technical core for most 911 services in this country.

Through a recent series of letters sent to the RBOCs (and copied to various members of Congress and the FCC), Vonage asked for the companies' cooperation to stage tests of emergency 911 (E-911) services in "the next 30 to 60 days." The letters also noted that Vonage "cannot resolve fundamental issues associated with providing a native E-911 service to VoIP users without your assistance."

An SBC spokesperson said the company "is going to respond to the [Vonage] letter," and that "nothing is more important to SBC than the safety of our customers, and no service is more important than 911." The San Antonio-based SBC is the major telecom service provider in Texas.

Strickland said the attorney general's office would not comment on whether or not it had contacted Vonage prior to filing the lawsuit, or whether or not Vonage's changing its advertising would help settle the lawsuit. Strickland also said the AG's office would not comment on whether or not it had discussed Vonage's 911 operations with other carriers, such as SBC.

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