It’s no secret that the nation’s 911 system needs an overhaul as Americans now use a plethora of communication methods—including cellular, VoIP, data and text—over a variety of networks such as cable, Internet VoIP, WiMAX and Wi-Fi. This year, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) is expected to make some significant progress towards establishing standards for next-generation 911 (NG-911), an all-IP 911 system capable of accommodating all of these rapidly evolving calling methods.

But the full implementation of NG-911 is complex and may not happen until 2011 or after, noted Roger Hixson, NENA’s director of technical issues, during a recent webinar sponsored by the trade association USTelecom that examined the potential effect NG-911 would have on originating service providers (OSPs). While 2010 is the estimate for fully standards-based NG-911 availability, true IP-to-IP connectivity won’t be ready then. Rather, Hixson envisions the various call methods—such as wireless, landline and VoIP—to continue transporting the same way via the standard analog or SS7 network and into an IP gateway.

“We have to have a replication of what E911 does today in order not to have a dip or risk of dropping 911 calls,” Hixson told an audience of more than 500. “The gateways involved may have to drive and populate data and that will probably limit the ability to consolidate OSP transport.”

These gateways, however, limit one of the key goals of NG-911, which is to enable all IP-based service types to quickly interface with the NG-911 system, as long as they meet some standard interface requirements. “Consolidating transport without losing functionality is the goal,” Hixson said.

But full 911 functionality in an all-IP world is complex and will require OSPs and their vendors to make changes in the way they generate call data in IP mode, Hixson said. These players need to work with NENA and other bodies to develop timely standards to support the needed interface data.

“All of these types of originating services (i.e., cellular, VoIP, and landline) have their own characteristics, certain things they can provide with the call and certain things they can’t,” Hixson said. “We need … an IP interface basis to make sure we’re generating the right information at the right time—from either the originating service provider or access provider—so that NG-911 can replicate services we have today at the same quality and dependability—and the same capabilities to solve problems and troubleshoot them when they occur.”

In today’s 911 world, standards and relationships exist that facilitate the location of a caller. In an all-IP world, those standards and relationships no longer exist, which may require the access provider to be the one sending the data intentionally, Hixson said. In the case of an IP provider, the access provider—such as an ISP—may be the only entity that has the call information. Will it share that information with the service provider even if the two don’t have a contractual requirement to do so? “We need to resolve the issue of getting the appropriate information from the appropriate entity. That’s the downside of going with NG-911, but the upside is so much greater,” Hixson said.

NENA is planning to conduct a full beta test and a first application test, likely in 2010, as NENA and other groups hammer out standards. Part of the transition to NG-911 also will include a transitioning committee that focuses on service providers and breaks them into different categories—cellular, VoIP and landline, for instance—so that each type of service provider has specific details about what they need to consider when the transition to NG-911 happens.