Issues abound for call centers
Clearly, the public-safety answering point community has more questions than answers right now, as myriad challenges cloud the future for the nation’s emergency call centers. Chief among them are how to effectively provide 911 emergency services to subscribers of voice-over-IP phone service and where they will find the money needed to upgrade PSAPs to provide location information for wireless subscribers, as mandated by the FCC.
PSAP leaders know where much of the money is supposed to come from. While acknowledging the “tough budget climate” that currently exists in Washington, Patrick Halley, National Emergency Number Association director of government affairs, said during the NENA’s annual conference held in Pittsburgh last month that Congress needs to fulfill the promises it made to the PSAP sector when it passed the ENHANCE 911 Act in 2004.
“It’s pointless to have killed ourselves on this legislation when it’s not even close to being funded,” he said. “The authorization exists, and the promise of money has been made. We need to make Congress fulfill that promise.”
The legislation authorized up to $250 million annually over five years for PSAP upgrades — particularly to bring them into compliance with the FCC’s Phase 2 mandate, which requires wireless carriers and 911 call centers to provide location information for emergency calls placed using a mobile phone. Although 75% of the nation’s population currently is served by Phase 2-compliant PSAPs, about half of the 6200 emergency call centers nationwide currently do not comply with the mandate, according to a recently released NENA report.
Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who co-chair the Congressional E-911 Caucus, each introduced legislation in April calling for Congress to appropriate a total of $42 million for fiscal 2007, but a House subcommittee already has trimmed $21 million from the requests, Halley said.
“It’s tough to get funding right now; it’s particularly tough to get new programs funded,” he said. “This is a program that doesn’t have a history and doesn’t exist.”
In January, President Bush signed legislation that appropriated $43.5 million for E911 upgrades, but the money won’t be available until the 700 MHz spectrum that Congress is forcing broadcasters to vacate is auctioned, which is a big problem, Halley said.
“No money will be available for PSAP grants until ’08 at the minimum, maybe ’09. That’s not acceptable, obviously,” he said.
Another problem area concerns VoIP. One of the biggest issues thus far is the FCC’s inability to ensure that VoIP providers adhere to the commission’s mandate, contained in a May 2005 order, that VoIP providers provide enhanced 911 to their customers, according to Jim Shepard, executive vice president of E911 system vendor HBF Group, during a Webinar entitled “VoIP Myth Busters,” presented last month by The Consultant Registry.
“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,” 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.’”
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, plus there are technical issues, Shepard said. Although 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 a clash there,” Shepard said.
Despite these drawbacks, the i2 guidelines likely will be in place for “six to 10 years” with the traditional 911 infrastructure because the cost to make all 6200 PSAPs IP-enabled — something necessary for the adoption of NENA’s IP-friendly i3 guidelines — will “require a huge amount of money,” he said.
In the meantime, PSAPs are faced with the prospect of determining how to meet the FCC’s VoIP mandate. Among the advice dispensed at NENA’s conference was that officials shouldn’t let “rules of engagement” get in the way of provisioning such services as soon as possible.
While acknowledging the need for business contracts and standards that define the relationship between call centers, VoIP providers and third-party vendors, the more important consideration is to serve constituents, said Carey Spence, director of state government affairs for Intrado.
“The state of Texas early on, before the order came out, formed a VoIP task force that created a very thorough process to ensure that VoIP deployments would occur appropriately,” Spence said. “When we got down to deploying, Texas realized that there were some parts of that process that were creating delays in deployment. … So they waived some of those steps and requirements so we could get the deployments done.”
According to Spence, Texas officials felt comfortable waiving certain requirements because they trusted VoIP providers and third-party vendors to cooperate with them after deployments were in place to work out the kinks.
After an attendee pointed out that, without voice providers collecting fees, there wouldn’t be 911 service of any kind, Spence stressed that she wasn’t advising call-center managers to abandon such requirements.
“Let me clarify: I didn’t say dispense with them, I said waive them to get to deployment, and then come back and deal with them afterwards,” she said.
Another set of issues concerns multiple street address guides, or MSAGs, which define address elements such as the exact spelling of streets and address number ranges. John Cummings, vice president of E911 for VoIP provider Vonage, reminded NENA attendees how critical it is for VoIP service providers to receive up-to-date MSAG data.
“What we’re looking to do, as we get deployments completed, is get your MSAG data, so we’re getting calls routed to the right place,” he said. “We’re also working very hard to make sure all of our customer information is validated against the MSAG.”
Provisioning 911 service to VoIP subscribers has been complicated by typing errors made by subscribers when they register the current location of their VoIP handsets, which typically occurs when the subscriber travels or when the data they provide is inconsistent with standard MSAG style. According to Cummings, Vonage requests VoIP positioning centers (VPCs) to validate the data typed into its Web interface.
“If they’re unable to validate it, we’ll go back and tell the customer that they haven’t provided us with a valid address at some level,” Cummings said. “We work with each of the [VPC] vendors to provide a third-party intercept.”
Timothy Lorello, senior vice president for TeleCommunication Systems, which recently added an MSAG-based routing feature to its VPC solution, said there are several methods to validate whether the information typed by the subscriber is valid. “If there is an MSAG-validation stack in the front end, it will catch errors before they go into the MSAG, so you should not have invalid MSAG records,” Lorello said.
But he acknowledged there isn’t a current method to inform PSAPs when a record is in error or that it has been corrected by the system’s safety-net processes.
SHOW US THE MONEY
June 2003 — Sens. Burns and Clinton introduce legislation that would authorize $2.5 billion over five years for PSAP upgrades.
December 2004 — President Bush signs sweeping telecom legislation that includes $1.25 billion for PSAP upgrades.
August 2005 — Legislative aide to Rep. John Shimkus (R, Ill.) reports that PSAPs will receive no more than $8 million in 2005 and $20 million in 2006.
January 2006 — President Bush signs appropriations bill that includes $43.5 million for fiscal 2006 for PSAP upgrades, but the money won’t be available until 2008
April 2006 — Burns and Clinton submit separate requests totaling $42 million for PSAP upgrades for fiscal 2007; $21 million was slashed in committee, according to NENA.