Demystifying Telephony in Emergency Notification and Response

By TMCnet Special Guest
Frank Mahdavi, Chief Strategy Officer, MIR3 Inc.
  |  August 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Unified Communications magazine.

You’ve probably noticed it too — with the growth of e-mail, smartphones and other technology, the world seems to be shrinking. These days it’s just as easy to talk with a colleague across the globe as one across the hall; sometimes it’s even easier.

Every day more people are working from remote offices or distant locations. While doing business in remote places is rewarding, there’s also a certain amount of risk, which makes reliable communication all the more important.

With some staff at headquarters and others scattered around the globe, can you reach everyone quickly when seconds count? If there’s an emergency in one office that impacts the rest, can you reach out and direct business, no matter where you are?

A notification system provides a level of insurance during an emergency. If a natural or man-made disaster occurs, you want full confidence that your notification solution will do the job of communicating with your staff as quickly and efficiently as possible.

To reach all of your employees quickly you need an emergency notification solution that works with the most common business communication methods — mobile phones, landline phones, e-mail and SMS. These ways of communicating all have one thing in common: telephony, the modern communications backbone. Thus, a thorough understanding of telephony options in emergency notification for business continuity and disaster recovery is crucial in finding a solution you can count on.

Simply defined, telephony is a term used to describe voice communication over distance, with telephony ports being the conduits or digital pipes into that system. Looking at this a bit more broadly, telephony includes familiar landline phone communications, Internet phone calling, cellular phone calling, faxing, conference calls, videoconferencing, and VoIP communication.

Telephony is at the base of all emergency notification systems. Telephony provides the conduit, and if the conduit is too small, if it is busy, or blocked, important messages will not be sent. If messages are not delivered quickly, then all the other features that come along with an emergency notification solution are essentially worthless.

Of course traditional telephony is based on the PSTN, which establishes a circuit between two callers who then remain steadily connected for the duration of the call. However, since only two users at a time can communicate using PSTN, to contact a large group requires making many calls, one after another, and can be costly and time-consuming.

With the advent of VoIP all this has changed. VoIP uses the long-distance network provided by PTSN. However, Internet service providers pay long-distance providers for access that allows them to share the circuits among many users at the same time by use of packet switching (breaking digitized information into chunks, and sending those data packets through the Internet). Packet switching makes it possible to send many messages at one time and enables individuals to respond in large numbers without tying up phone lines.

So now one port can send many messages at a time, and by using load shifting, port capacity can be further enhanced. For example, if you initiate a notification and, due to heavy traffic a port is busy, your message can be moved to the next port, and then the next in rapid succession until a port is open and the message is delivered. Because of the dynamic nature of shifting load from port to port, it’s easy to assume that with a large number of ports, all messages will shoot through rapidly. Unfortunately, telephony ports and communications infrastructures are expensive to build and maintain, so a balance must be struck between cost, number and type of available ports.

More ports do indeed mean that more information can move through rapidly, but the information may not be prioritized in the way you might expect. The type and size of the communications you intend to send, along with the frequency and importance, must be considered in choosing the right solution. For some businesses, fulfilling a legal requirement is all that’s needed. For others, nothing short of the most comprehensive, reliable and fail-safe communication system will do.

There are four basic telephony port configurations offered by communication vendors today: unlimited, shared, reserved, and dedicated.

An unlimited port system is shared across an entire user population, giving every customer equal access to every port in the system. This is sometimes called a port farm. In theory there are enough ports to go around no matter what happens, but in real life all resources are limited and therefore, the results of delivering notifications are not always predictable.

Basing your emergency notification solution decision on the quantity of ports can lead to a false sense of security. Since there is no limit on the number of users that can access a port farm, and each user has equal access to all ports at any time, there is always a chance of port overload. In the event that a large number of users are engaging the same port or ports at one time, say in the case of a large weather situation affecting a broad geographical area, access to these ports will be delayed and notifications will be slowed accordingly. Since flat fees are often charged for this configuration, users may send notifications more frequently than if there is a per-use charge, further clogging the system. Unlimited port systems may be the least costly option and are best suited to those sending non-critical, not particularly time-sensitive communications.

A shared port system is used by a limited number of customers on an as-needed basis. A customer will license a specific number of ports that they feel will be sufficient to cover potential need and will share those ports with few other customers (typically in the range of three to six), balancing a lower cost while hoping to ensure availability when a need arises.

Let’s say three customers share a port, each having equal access – if the port is available when you need to send a notification, your message will be sent immediately. If another customer sends a notification at the same time, the system will alternate sending notifications, doubling the time required to send. If all three are sending a notification, the system will poll across all three before going back to the first. So if all notifications are the same size, the time to send increases by 300 percent. Now imagine that one of the users has a long notification to send while the other two are sending shorter notifications – even a short urgent message will be delayed as it takes its turn moving through the port.

A reserved port system gives you much greater assurance that ports will be available when needed. A reserved port acts as a shared port until a contracted reserved customer needs it. When a reserved customer initiates a notification, the port becomes exclusively theirs until that notification is delivered – that is, once any current notifications have been completed. The advantage here is that reserved users do not bear the fiscal burden of paying for exclusive port use, but instead share the costs with other reserved and shared users, banking that availability will be granted in time of need. The downside is that the reserved user still must wait for a brief period of time while the shared ports in use are freed, but when reserved ports are shared with a small group of users that risk is greatly reduced.

A dedicated port system is reserved at all times for the customer who has procured it. When you want absolute assurance that one or more ports will be available for use at any time, dedicated ports are the best option, providing the highest possible level of availability that critical, time-sensitive notifications will be delivered without delay. This is the best choice for organizations that anticipate sending time-sensitive messages. It may be the most expensive option, but is certainly the most reliable.

Recent events, new social trends and technological leaps have had a profound effect on how the modern world communicates. To be competitive, your business needs an emergency notification system that allows you to communicate quickly and clearly with highly mobile and dispersed groups. Service level agreements provide some level of comfort, but if your notification doesn’t go through quickly and efficiently, money is a poor substitute when customers suffer a loss, employees are injured, or worse. Consider your telephony choice wisely, and you will be confident that you can communicate clearly and efficiently with those that matter most.

Frank Mahdavi is chief strategy officer with MIR3 Inc. (

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Edited by Stefania Viscusi