911 Access

Emergency alert: the state of 9-1-1


From Light Reading

It’s a common adage that accidents strike when least expected. Planning for emergencies is something that many of us overlook in our personal lives, but this attitude cannot extend to responsible communications providers as well.

I’m specifically referring to the diverse levels of 9-1-1 service that various types of providers offer. While commercial technologies seem to innovate at lightning speeds, 9-1-1 is still commonly restricted to supporting traditional services, and stretched to the breaking point in supporting wireless and VoIP 9-1-1 calls. Current 9-1-1 infrastructure is still set up to support traditional phones, but increasingly consumers are not communicating with those devices.

Today, there is an evolving communications network that has progressed far beyond fixed wireline networks. An intricate system of networks now exists with varying protocols, devices, and channels. While there are ample opportunities to roll out innovative services more in line with how people communicate today, it’s important that 911 remain reliable in emergencies.

We all agree that it’s our shared responsibility in the industry to improve our emergency services. However, there are many complicating factors behind the scenes that hinder this improvement. (See OTT: Learn From Telco’s Past to Shape Future and What OTT Can Learn From Big Telecom.)

Consumers depend on 9-1-1, but they typically do not stop to think, especially in an emergency, about how technologically limited these services are compared to commercial communications they use daily. When an emergency or natural disaster occurs in the US, someone dials 9-1-1 and expects that help is on the way, as they are connected to the nearest emergency dispatch center — known as a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). With traditional wireline services, the caller’s phone number is automatically associated to a physical address, enabling PSAP call-takers to let emergency responders know where to deliver emergency services.

911 in an OTT world
But what happens if someone doesn’t use a traditional phone? More and more, consumers are turning to OTT VoIP to handle their everyday communications needs. They are texting, sending photos, Skyping, making calls over WiFi, and the list goes on with each new innovation. With this evolving model of commercial communications, emergency communications should also be sophisticated enough to let OTT VoIP users at least contact 9-1-1, too. In fact, to ever truly become a replacement service, OTT VoIP providers must enable their users with effective connectivity to public safety when an emergency strikes.

Those who are working toward advanced levels of emergency services, such as my company, Bandwidth.com, know that it will be a process to enable fully robust 9-1-1 for OTT VoIP — you cannot simply flip a switch to turn it on. Just like the nation’s legacy public switched telephone network (PSTN) is based on decades-old time division multiplexing (TDM) technologies, so is the nation’s 911 infrastructure.

Truly solving for robust emergency calling from OTT VoIP users is challenging because IP-enabled applications tend to be used on mobile devices where a pre-registered location may be of nominal value. Additionally, the ability for OTT VoIP to support text messaging triggers separate challenges that are only beginning to be confronted by the industry.

Beyond upgrading the network infrastructure to IP, accurately determining a caller’s location at the time of the call becomes the most critical need. Industry standards are being developed around the vision that, in the event of an emergency, an OTT VoIP user’s call to 9-1-1 could trigger a look-up into an ISP’s database for current location information, which would, in turn, be mapped and sent to the appropriate PSAP. In time, such a process will ultimately appear as seamless to the caller as it is to a traditional wireline user today.

A texting solution for OTT VoIP is similarly built upon the ability to identify the location of the person texting 9-1-1 and know which PSAP should receive the text. Similar to the lack of text interoperability between traditional landlines and mobile end-users, emergency text messaging to the vast majority of the nation’s 6,000 PSAPs, where the underlying infrastructure is TDM-based, is not supported.

For emergency text messaging and OTT VoIP to be fully deployed and ubiquitously available, PSAPs across the nation must upgrade their legacy TDM-base infrastructures to IP-based solutions. For example, the Alabama Next Generation Emergency Network, or ANGEN, is currently working on just such a statewide initiative.

One year ago, much of the eastern seaboard was devastated by the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and it reminded the country, and the telecom industry, of the importance of having reliable 9-1-1 services. As these natural disasters happen, along with everyday emergencies, it humbles our industry and challenges us to provide more sophisticated services.

Emergency response is an issue that everyone in the telecom industry should be keenly focused on. As people increasingly rely on their IP communications services as a lifeline in emergencies, it is the entire industry’s responsibility to ensure that widespread technological developments include innovative 911 solutions as well. The next emergency is always around the corner.

— Steve Leonard, executive vice president and general manager of Bandwidth.com.