Wednesday, October 19, 2005

IS VoIP GETTING SET FOR A PATENT SHOWDOWN? As the appeal of voice-over IP (VoIP) grows among businesses and consumers, telecom vendors are scrambling for position. Earlier this month, a subsidiary of Sprint/Nextel zapped Vonage, VoiceGlo and theglobe.com with a patent infringement suit (by amazing coincidence, Vonage is in the midst of preparing for an initial public offering). Sprint/Nextel is also seeking an injunction as part of the suit. Yesterday, Teles announced the granting of a patent, and then proceeded to immediately include it in the ongoing litigation the company has against AVM, Quintum and Cisco.

Later next month, VoIP companies are expected to address the issue of 911 service. Customers in some states have reported problems getting through to an emergency operator, sometimes to disastrous results (Texas and Connecticut have sued VoIP companies for inadequately informing customers that they may not have the same access to the 911 network they did under traditional phone service). Also, because the calls aren’t part of a regular phone network, it sometimes is not immediately clear to a 911 operator where a call is coming from on a VoIP line. VoIP providers, use broadband — cable, wireless or DSL — operated by other companies to carry customer calls.

The FCC has mandated that VOIP providers ensure that when their customers dial 911 they are connected with an operator who can immediately tell the location of the call. The deadline for this service is set for Nov. 28, 2005 (although it is probable that this deadline will get pushed back again).

Which brings up the question of patents - if companies are scrambling to implement E911 services on their VoIP phones, chances are that someone's going to stumble right into a patent on 911 services.

Currently, most telephone service providers rely on Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) that are equipped to receive 911 calls. The PSAP operators take emergency calls, identify the caller's location, request the program to match the PSAP with the caller's area and then initiate a three-way call with the appropriate emergency response operator.

One problem with PSAP's is that they serve only 67 percent of all U.S. households. Also, PSAP's rely on databases containing names, phone numbers and addresses, and if the information is incorrectly stored in the database, emergency crews will be unable to locate the caller. Furthermore, if emergency calls are made away from home, the operator needs to be informed where you are.

Accordingly, many VoIP companies have been filing patents to address these issues, and some have already had their patents issue. Right now there doesn't seem to be a dominant patent yet that may become a gateway for E911 Services. And because of the vagueness of the FCC mandate, it's not entirely clear how the VoIP companies are supposed to provide these services. But it is clear that when government mandates particular technology for certain products, it can create potentially huge patent headaches for complying companies.

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