If there is one area of VoIP that needs industry unity, it is in responding to 911 calls. Before VoIP proliferates further, we should address some key issues that will help keep us all safe and secure as packet switching takes over from circuit switching.
If you are using a VoIP provider today, you are likely queried for your address when subscribing. That address is then used if you ever call 911 from that phone. There are two obvious issues here. The first deals with the time it takes to update the 911 databases. How would consumers like to see a disclaimer when they subscribe to VoIP service: “Caution: This VoIP Service Provider strongly encourages you not to have any Emergencies during the first 48 hours of your service activation?” Worse yet is the second issue, which is that unlike traditional telephony, VoIP service is portable, allowing you to take your equipment on the road or use a soft client on any computer from anywhere in the world. How do service providers deal with the issue of customers calling from Starbucks? The simple answer is they usually don’t. If you call 911 from Starbucks, you can expect to see emergency response sent to the address on file: your house. Worse yet is that you could be connected to the wrong 911 office, also known as a PSAP or public safety answering point.
As an industry we need to deal with issues like this before it is too late. The media has been writing about how well the VoIP industry is doing, you can bet they are just dying to write a story detailing a tragedy that can be blamed on insufficient 911 service built into a budget priced VoIP provider network. No one but the media outlets benefits from this type of publicity. Let’s face it: there is also some measure of moral responsibility that we face. If we are going to ask people to switch to IP telephony, we owe it to them to provide emergency services as good as — if not better than — what they use today. We need to work together to save lives.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with the people of TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) about the 911 market. TCS is one of a handful of companies that make products for this space. If you want to read more about this issue, I invite you to look at the new column starting this month that will be authored by TCS’ Tim Lorello. The first installment is entitled Will 9-1-1 Be the Stumbling Stone for VoIP? and appears on page 48 of this issue.
How Does 911 Work Today?
When you dial 911 from a wireline phone, your number is provided by ANI service (automatic number identification) to the PSAP or in your area. A single city can have many PSAPs. This information is then used to query the ALI (automatic location identification) database where the address is found and used to dispatch help.
A wireless 911 call varies slightly from the wireline example in that there is no ALI information and the PSAP could be passed an X and Y coordinate, which is less accurate than a wireline emergency call. The future of wireless 911 will be much more accurate as phones will be better able to transmit more precise coordinates.
The difference between the wireless and VoIP approach to 911 is that wireless uses the network to help determine location while in the VoIP world; we are going down the path of static database queries. Obviously the VoIP approach is lousy and will get infinitely worse in the next few months as people start using WiFi telephony phones. Now is a great time for the industry to get together and deal with these issues before regulators tell us how to deal with them.
To make matters worse, when a VoIP 911 call is transferred to a PSAP, it calls into the administrative lines, which are lowest priority in the center. The fact that VoIP 911 calls are handled in a sufficiently inferior manner to PSTN calls can eventually reduce VoIP sales if we don’t take action now! BTW, entrenched carriers can get around this limitation but the majority of VoIP carriers cannot.
In the future, we can expect most every device to be GPS enabled. This should make the 911 issue much easier to solve. Furthermore, some PSAPs are upgrading to VoIP themselves meaning 911 calls in the future could be VoIP, end-to-end. We will even be able to IM with 911 operators. PSAPs will evolve and eventually, protocols like SIP will make it possible to send information to the PSAP that will allow a VoIP caller to send more information to the PSAP than a PSTN caller. As PSAPs upgrade, they are exploring ways of getting even more information such as a schematic of a building in the case of an alarm triggered call.
One day, everyone will likely have an emergency portal with vast amounts of medical data such as past operations, drug allergies, current prescriptions you are taking, and more potentially life saving information. As more and more police cruisers have wireless connectivity and laptops, it will be possible to send vast amounts of data to the officers en route to the 911 destination allowing them to be better prepared to handle these emergencies.
We need to come together and work with the PSAPs to make sure that we provide consumers with 911 service equal to if not better than the PSTN and we need to do it quickly.
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