911 from an Internet Phone

Emergency Trouble with VoIP Phone Service

executive making a call
Almost all business phones use VoIP now. Image Source / Getty Images

Internet-based phones (known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP) use the internet to connect with traditional telephones. Because they use the internet rather than traditional phone lines, they may not be as reliable as traditional phones during an emergency.

Almost all business desk phones use VoIP. These are also the types of phone systems that come bundled with your TV and internet service.

They might use the phone lines in your house or the cable, but they're still connected through internet.

Video chat services like Skype or WoWchat also use VoIP, but you aren't likely to use these services to call 911. If you do, there's no telling who is going to answer.

Why VoIP Isn't Always Reliable

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lists these reasons VoIP calls might not correctly connect with emergency services:

  • VoIP 911 calls may not connect to the emergency call center -- known as a PSAP -- or might improperly ring to the wrong line, which might not be staffed with trained 911 operators.
  • VoIP 911 calls might connect to the PSAP, but without transmitting E911 information, especially the location of the call.
  • VoIP customers need to provide updated location information to their VoIP providers if they change their address. Otherwise, their VoIP 911 service will not function properly.
  • VoIP service may not work during a power failure.
  • VoIP 911 service will be lost if internet service is interrupted.

To reduce these differences, and any possible risks to public safety posed by interconnected VoIP 911 service, the FCC has imposed the following requirements:

  • If your home or office phone service works through the internet, your VoIP provider must provide 911 service as a mandatory feature. You should not have to request this service. You are not allowed to opt out of 911 service.
  • Your VoIP provider must get the physical location where the service will be used so emergency services can find you. Your VoIP provider has to provide one or more easy ways for you to update your physical location if you move.
  • Your VoIP provider must connect all 911 calls with your phone number and physical location to the appropriate local emergency authority.
  • Your VoIP provider must explain any limitations of its 911 service and circumstances when 911 might not be available.
  • In areas where emergency service providers aren't able to see locations or call back numbers (call centers not equipped with E911) VoIP providers must ensure that all 911 calls are routed to the appropriate PSAP.

Tips to Ensure VoIP 911 Service

Thinking of VoIP phone service? Even if you already have it, these tips could save a life:

  • Make sure your VoIP provider has your accurate physical address.
  • Promptly update your address information in the event of a move.
  • Have a clear understanding of any limitations of your 911 service.
  • Inform your kids, babysitters and visitors about your VoIP service's 911 limitations.
  • Install a backup power supply in case of power failures.
  • Consider maintaining a traditional phone line, which doesn't need external power or internet, in case of emergencies.
  • Know the limits of calling 911 on mobile phones if you choose to use one as a backup to your VoIP service.
  • Don't know if you have VoIP service? Contact your telephone service provider to find out -- it's important.

If VoIP Doesn't Call 911, Complain

If you have trouble accessing 911 while using VoIP service, you can file a complaint with the FCC. There's no charge and complaints are the only way the FCC will learn about problems. The easiest way to file a complaint is to use the FCC complaint form.


"FCC Consumer Advisory: VoIP and 911 Service." 17 Sep 2008. FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Federal Communications Commision. 09 Oct 2008

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