More than a year after the FCC issued an order mandating that voice-over-IP (VoIP) service providers offer enhanced 911 to their customers, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are still left with more questions than answers, a 911 solution vendor executive said this week.

“While the FCC order was a great first step in trying to get VoIP on par, there were a lot of things that were just missed or purposely excluded from the order,” said Jim Shepard, HBF Group executive vice president, during a webinar entitled “VoIP Myth Busters,” presented by The Consultant Registry.

One of the problems is that the FCC generally has not taken action to ensure that VoIP providers adhere to the mandates in the commission’s order, Shepard said.

“In some cases, we actually see VoIP service providers say, ‘I know I need to get enhanced 911, but I’m not going to pay for it right now, because nobody’s going to slap me on the wrist if I don’t have it,’” he said. “I think that’s about to change, but, so far, there’s been very little enforcement from the FCC behind last year’s 911 order.”

Routing VoIP 911 calls from nomadic customers can be challenging on many fronts, from getting access to selective routers and ALI databases to ensuring the displayed address is correct, Shepard said. Although the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has established an i2 specification, there is considerable flexibility in the way each vendor tries to accomplish the various functions.

More important, the i2 guidelines are based on the enhanced 911 system used for emergency calls from wireless-phone users, Shepard said.

“We’re being held to a wireline standard and the i2 design spec is built on a wireless call-routing and data-delivery mechanism, so we’ve got a bit of clash there,” Shepard said.

Despite these drawbacks, the i2 guidelines likely will be in place for “six to 10 years” given the traditional 911 infrastructure, because the cost to make all 6200 PSAPs nationwide IP-enabled—something that is necessary for the adoption of NENA’s IP-friendly i3 guidelines—will “require a huge amount of money.”

And just securing enough funds to maintain existing operations is a challenge for many PSAPs, because the FCC order did not require VoIP providers to collect 911 fees, even though their customers typically have dropped their traditional wireline phone service that helped fund call-center operations, Shepard said.
“PSAPs are getting hit with a double whammy—you’re getting less money and you’re being asked to do more,” he said.

Solving funding issues is critical to the future of 911, and Shepard said he hopes that legislation at the state or federal level will be passed to address the need.

“The funding must occur,” he said. “Without something to get the equivalent funding for wireline and wireless, the public-safety community will be adversely impacted.”