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In case of emergency, VoIP users can send smoke signals

No 911, no new customers

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Voice over IP, or VoIP, promises to bring cheap phone calls to the digitally connected - but it's also opening up a new and unexpected fissure in the digital divide.

The Federal Communications Commission today said it expects VoIP vendors to suspend their marketing in areas where they can't support 911 calls to emergency services, and promise not to sign up any customers who can't dial 911 over VoIP.

It's a compromise of sorts. In June the FCC issued its VOIP 911 Order, which said that providers must prepare a compliance statement by November 28. The implicit threat was that VoIP providers would have to suspend their non- 911-compliant VoIP services. Now they don't have to suspend the service, merely suspend signing up new users.

The FCC complimented AT&T on its 911 compliance proposal, where the giant telco volunteered to hold up its recruitment drive.

"Although we do not require providers that have not achieved full 911 compliance by November 28, 2005, to discontinue the provision of interconnected VoIP service to any existing customers, we do expect that such providers will discontinue marketing VoIP service, and accepting new customers for their service, in all areas where they are not transmitting 911 calls to the appropriate PSAP in full compliance with the Commission's rules," the regulator said in a statement today.

So, if your only phone is a VoIP service beamed at you over some far away Wi-Fi transmitter, and there's an emergency, what do you do?

We recommend setting fire to your PC - in a controlled fashion - which may then be used to generate time-honored analog distress signals, as illustrated below.

A VoIP user in distress?

To generate good signals, you may need to fan the fire, and we recommend something light but with a substantial surface area that can be easily discarded - such as old Pulver.com conference material, or some Intel WiMAX marketing brochures.

We have plenty to hand if you want to start creating your own 911 emergency system right away. ®

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