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David Sims - TMCnet CRM Alert Columnist[February 24, 2005]

VoIP and 911 – Part I

By David Sims, TMCnet CRM Alert Columnist


At the ITEXPO in Miami today, two sessions are devoted to the 911 issue with VoIP. In these three articles we’ll look at why this is a problem, what the approaches to solving it are and what’s being done. [See Part II and Part III.]


The first session, at 3:00 Thursday is titled “The Relationship Between VoIP & E-911.” What is the relationship? Why can’t I just dial 911 on my VoIP phone the way I can on any other phone?

“Currently many VoIP providers need to manually update their databases to make sure that 911 calls get routed to the proper PSAPs,” the session materials state, “and that the proper address is on file. This process takes time and leaves room for potential mishap if their customer dials 911 before the database is updated.”

As TMC President Rich Tehrani states, “The positive press friendly to VoIP that we witnessed for the past year will vanish the moment someone is injured or worse because there is a problem with VoIP and e911 connectivity.” He notes that today’s sessions can address the current state of E-911 – enhanced 911, explained in a bit – readiness in regards to VoIP networks.

If you are dialing from a traditional landline phone, there is no problem. However, calls from today’s increasingly mobile handsets – cell phones and the new VoIP phones – can present a problem for emergency responders.

“Determining a caller’s exact location is more difficult,” explains Eric Bear, who oversees product strategy at Qovia, Inc., “and sometimes impossible, when handsets are totally mobile.”

Basically the 911 system was built for a time when the technology was such that every incoming call could be traced to a physical location via landline. Emergency responders knew exactly where to go, and hysterical callers who screamed “Don’t ask me my name and address, just get here!” were told correctly “Help is on the way, ma’am, we just need some information to assist the officers who are en route.”

Mobile technology and VoIP isn’t recognized by the 911 system in the same way, so the dispatcher must actually receive, understand and repeat a description of the caller’s location. Much time is lost and mistakes are multiplied. You can see the problem.

Global Positioning Satellite chips in cell phones are helping solve that problem, and a new process for VoIP called Enhanced 911 is being used to provide information to emergency responders.

E 911 sends location information from mobile handsets to more than 6,000 Public Safety Answer Points nationwide. Emergency personnel answering the call, Bear explains, at the PSAP view the caller’s location information on the console in front of them. If the person dialing 911 is incapacitated, doesn’t know their current location, or the call is disconnected, the PSAP will have the information needed to dispatch help.

But, as Bear says, “ VoIP remains a challenge for the 911 system. Instead of using the traditional copper wire system, VoIP runs voice packets over an Internet Protocol network. This allows VoIP users to easily take a phone with them in the same way they can take a laptop and plug it in to any high-speed Internet connection.”

Toss in Wi-Fi connections and new wireless VoIP phones and the problem is magnified even further:

A college student, her Smith Dorm room address on file, takes her IP phone from the dorm room and plugs into the Buswell Library LAN during an all-night study session. A traveling business executive, home office address in Poughkeepsie on file, uses his wireless VoIP phone to make calls from Wi-Fi hotspots in Boise. If either calls 911, Bear points out, emergency responders could be sent to the wrong building or the wrong city.

What’s needed is a way to provide up-to-date location information from VoIP phones to the PSAPs. Government regulation is an issue as the FCC and numerous state regulatory bodies haven’t yet decided how to regulate VoIP. Most analysts are certain that any FCC regulatory policy would (rightly) insist upon a 911 fix consistent across all 50 states. Currently there are different regulations from state to state, creating massive headaches and inefficiencies.

The most challenging environment for VoIP E 911, though, Bear thinks, is wireless VoIP: “Wireless 802.11 phones work anywhere there is a Wi-Fi hotspot, be it at the office, the mall, or airports around the world… an E 911 solution must be used easily in all VoIP network environments.”

In Part II, we’ll look at some of the technical solutions being proposed.


David Sims is contributing editor and CRM Alert columnist for TMCnet.


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