Calling 911 in a VOIP Phone World

I placed a 911 call from my house last week (don’t worry, everything is fine now). Nothing unusual about that except that I’m in my 5th year as a Vonage customer. As a VoIP service, Vonage has the advantage of allowing me to connect the hardware to any broadband Internet connection and place or receive calls to the same number. In theory, I could take my Vonage hardware to China, connect it, and receive local Seattle area calls with no one on the other end being wise to my location. The downside to this mobility is needing to manually enter your location into the Vonage system for the purpose of 911 call routing. I had entered the correct address for our old residence, back when 911 support first became available, but hadn’t updated it when we moved to Bainbridge Island in 2008.
This illustrates an important difference between landline phone service and VoIP. With the landline service, the phone carrier knows the exact physical location of call routing because the phone carrier owns the network from their central office all the way up to the point of demarcation on the side of your residence. With a VoIP service like Vonage, all they know is that somewhere out on the Internet there’s a box with a specific IP address and MAC address combination associated with your phone number. When a call comes in to Vonage for your, it routes that call out to your box.
For purposes of 911 service, the phone company provides location information for phone numbers, so the 911 operator can use caller ID functions to identify your location. I believe they still verify this data when you call them, but it is seldom wrong for traditional phone service. With VoIP, the providers rely on you to keep accurate data in the system. Failure to provide accurate data may slow down the ability of the emergency services to respond to your call.
In my case, this simply meant a transfer I barely noticed while on the phone to the Bainbridge Island 911 operator, which translated to quick service in a small community setting. For places with traffic congestion and greater geographic spread, it could be more serious.
Bottom line: take my failure to update the 911 address in my Vonage service as an opportunity to make sure your VoIP phone service is updated with the correct physical address for your location, so that when you need to call 911 they know where to find you.