In what many industry observers are calling a position reversal, the National Emergency Numbering Association executive board has declared voice-over-IP 911 systems that route calls to the administrative office of a public-safety answering point as “unacceptable.”

“In NENA's view, it is unacceptable for a VoIP service provider to block customer access to 911,” according to NENA's statement released in February. “For fixed-location customers using telephone numbers local to their service area, blocking of 911 calls or delivery to ten-digit numbers is unacceptable. As NENA finds, provision of E911 capabilities can be achieved through readily available techniques.”

In December 2003, NENA and the VON Coalition forged an agreement outlining an evolutionary migration path for VoIP 911 solutions. The first stage in that evolution, known as I1, called for VoIP providers to route 911 calls to PSAPs' 10-digit administrative phone number (see table).

“What [NENA is] not telling you in this statement is that this really does invalidate the I1 model,” said James Cavanagh, global telecom network and security consultant for The Consultant Registry.

NENA President Bill McMurray disagreed, saying the February statement was designed to bring “clarity” to the I1 model, which “was never intended to be a long-term solution.”

“It doesn't negate I1, but we're forcefully saying that VoIP providers need to provide location information,” McMurray said. “If the device has the look and feel of a telephone, it's got to provide 911 services. … We have an interest that 911 is not compromised by anybody.”

NENA's statement was released a couple of weeks after a Harris County, Texas, girl was unable to call 911 from the Vonage phones in her house as both of her parents suffered from gunshot wounds. McMurray acknowledged that the much-publicized incident played a role in NENA's decision to issue its statement.

“Timing-wise, the Harris incident provided a situational reason to address the issue,” he said.

Many public-safety officials criticized NENA's 2003 agreement with the VON Coalition because they believed that incidents such as the one in Harris County were inevitable unless VoIP providers are required to meet the E911 standards that apply to traditional telephony carriers. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) reiterated such a position recently in APCO President Greg Ballentine's February letter to President George W. Bush (see MRT March, page 40).

But McMurray says he believes NENA's decision to work cooperatively with the VoIP community to develop solutions — particularly a next-generation architecture that can enable efficient multimedia dispatching — will generate better results than waiting for regulations, noting that wireless E911 is still not a reality a decade after being mandated.

“Some people have said the NENA position is not in the interest of public safety,” McMurray said. “But it's foolish to suggest that we can wait for regulation to solve our problems. VoIP is here, and it's not going away; we can't ignore it.”

Indeed, VON Coalition Executive Director Jim Kohlenberger noted that VoIP providers are responding with voluntary solutions much more quickly than their wireline and wireless telephony counterparts have historically.

“It took the wireless industry 15 years before they started to provide location information,” Kohlenberger said. “If wireline is the snail, and wireless is the tortoise, then VoIP is the rabbit.”

THE STAGES OF 911 COMPLIANCE

I1, I2 and I3 are three stages to full 9-1-1 technical compliance developed by NENA and VON and announced in December 2003
  Standards Available Mobility Callback to PSAP Caller Location to PSAP PSAP Update ALI DB Upgrade New Services
I1 Now Stationary NO NO NO NO NO
I2 April-May ‘05 Stationary Nomadic YES YES NO for 8 or 10 digit number YES NO
I3 Late ‘05 early ‘06 Stationary Nomadic Mobile YES YES IP-enabled MSAG replaced by DNS in IETF proposal Multimedia international calls
Source: The Consultant Registry