Buyer Beware! The Hidden Dangers of WiFi-Enabled 911

The term ‘Caveat Emptor’ is a Latin phrase meaning, “let the buyer beware.” The term is primarily used in real estate transactions, but it’s applicable in any transaction. Essentially, it proclaims that the buyer must perform their due diligence when purchasing an item or service. That’s particularly true if you’re relying on Internet-based phone service for 911.

For any E911 service you subscribe too, reading the fine print may save your life. Don’t blindly click through the EULA.

So what the heck is a EULA? We have all see those annoying End User License Agreements that come with pretty much any software or service you use today. With more and more applications being delivered via the cloud and over the Internet, those EULAs may change over time, and virtually no one reads them completely.

With over-the-top, Internet-based Voice Over IP (VoIP) communications, the E911 services provided by these carriers may have some additional baggage you may not be aware of. If you read the EULA, those limitations are clearly spelled out, and the user has explicitly agreed to them by clicking OK on some form.

Case in point: a large cable provider promotes their online Internet service as a total replacement for cellular service. Utilizing their network of a ‘million WiFi hotspots,” this provider claims that you can drop your cellular service and use your smartphone on their network for just a fraction of what your current cell provider charges.

In fact, in several of their TV commercials, they openly state that E911 works, even when you don’t have a WiFi connection. But if you read their disclaimer outlining the specifics of their policy on E911, they clearly state in bold print:

WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU TELL OTHERS IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD, YOUR GUESTS, AND OTHER THIRD PARTIES WHO MAY USE THE SERVICE OF THESE LIMITATIONS. YOU SHOULD MAINTAIN AN ALTERNATIVE MEANS OF CALLING EMERGENCY SERVICES, AS THE SERVICE IS NOT MEANT TO BE A PRIMARY LINE REPLACEMENT SERVICE.

While I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, this seems to be an attempt to shift the liability for E911 to the consumer. What about the nice lady in the commercial? She told people exactly the opposite, and not to worry because “E911 always works.” I’m very concerned that the unsuspecting public will be led to believe they have an E911 safety net in place on their device, when in fact, depending on many contributing factors, they very well may not.

Cable providers are able to make this claim by relying on a provision in federal law that allows a mobile device to connect to the 911 network without a traditional mobile connection. This provision has been controversial, and there’s been talk of updating it, or possibly closing it entirely.

Although these devices work today, they carry with them a number of troubling issues:

  • They don’t provide the caller’s location
  • The emergency dispatcher can’t call them back”

Unless you work in public safety, these are facts you probably didn’t know. How many others are in a similar position, and how many people have switched to WiFi-only service on their smartphones, and are walking around with a device that may not work in the future for E911?

I really don’t want my epitaph to read ‘He Clicked OK, But He Never Read the EULA.’

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