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Feature Article
October 2004


Will 9-1-1 Be the Stumbling Stone for VoIP?

BY Tim Lorello

If you surf the Internet, attend a telecommunications trade show, or read your favorite technology magazine, you have heard the buzz: Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is revolutionizing the telecommunications industry. VoIP has graduated from a technology designed to significantly reduce the cost of long-distance to one that is destined to replace the familiar wireline telephones at home and work. But this technology is in danger of not living up to its promise due to a profound, yet basic, industry challenge that is summarized in three simple digits: 9-1-1.

Not Your Father’s Phone Service Anymore
Ironically, it is the power of VoIP that is responsible for this challenge. To understand this, it is helpful to classify VoIP technology into three categories: Static, Nomadic, and Mobile. The Static category describes scenarios in which the handset is associated with a single physical location. Whether at home or office, this solution replaces the familiar copper wires or ISDN jacks with an Ethernet or cable modem connection to the public Internet or private data network. But once you have made that data connection, it is tempting to move to the next category of VoIP: Nomadic. Think of “picking up your tent,” moving to a new spot, and setting up shop at the new location — now you understand the concept of Nomadic VoIP which lets you take your phone with you (usually as a headset connected to your laptop) and to make calls from anyplace in which you can connect to your Service Provider’s data network. All of this happens with the same features and costs as if you were calling from your primary home or office location. Now, take this Nomadic solution, cut the physical wires, and let the caller roam from WiFi hot-spot to hot-spot, and you have the final category — the Mobile VoIP solution.

The Faster You Go, The More Chance There Is Of Stubbing Your Toe
So far, this sounds exciting: more features, lower costs, no long distance, ease of use, and an eventual rival to cellular. This could be the real promise of unified communications — one phone to replace the multiple devices many of us use today. What’s not to love? Yet all of this revolutionary technology could, at best, be relegated to a “secondary line syndrome” or, at worst, be sharply slowed in deployment because of the challenge of providing emergency services for VoIP lines.

9-1-1 — that simple, yet immensely important, public safety service which most of us rarely use (but all thank God we have when we need it) — is difficult to provide for VoIP. Why? Because, so far, the industry has taken a wireline approach to 9-1-1, and, as we have just seen, VoIP is NOT a wireline service. Your VoIP phone number does not necessarily represent a single location. Indeed, the power of VoIP truly comes into play when we use either Nomadic or Mobile versions of this technology.

Ahead To The Past
When you place a 9-1-1 call from your home phone, your telephone company routes the call to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). The PSAP determines the nature of the emergency and has the responsibility to transfer the call to fire, police, or ambulance services. Ages ago, you were required to tell the person answering your call, the 911 Telecommunicator, where you lived. Almost 25 years ago, your 9-1-1 call was “Enhanced” and became E9-1-1 – and with this enhancement, your address was automatically transferred to the PSAP. Now, we take it for granted that the helpful person on the other end of our emergency call knows where we are. Today, even most wireless calls transmit your location information to the PSAP. Paradoxically, our technologically advanced VoIP service has turned the clock back decades by requiring most VoIP callers to identify their location.

To Be Or Not To Be
If we do not provide better 9-1-1 service for VoIP, mass adoption will likely be delayed, regulation may step in, and the average user may get a “cheap” VoIP second line but keep the primary wired line. Solving the 9-1-1 VoIP challenge is a likely requirement for this technology to reach its potential. Thankfully, there are solutions and companies with the skill sets to provide them. Stay tuned. IT

Tim Lorello is senior vice president and chief marketing officer for TeleCommunication Systems (TCS). For more information, please visit the company online at www.telecomsys.com.

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