By virtually any measurement, the 911 emergency call system in the U.S. has been an unqualified success, in terms of reliability, coverage, response rates and the number of lives saved. Yet most industry observers agree that the legacy 911 system is ill prepared to maintain these standards in a era dominated by IP-based communications.
The reasons for the limitations are many, not the least of which being that the foundation of 911 networks was established more than 30 years ago, when the only method of real-time communication was telephony over a local network owned by AT&T. Communication via computers was rare and extremely expensive, and regulations of the era, after the breakup of AT&T, prohibited the local phone monopolies — the so-called Baby Bells — from providing computing services and, subsequently, long-distance services.
“That’s why you can have two [public-safety answering points] today on opposite sides of the same street, but they can’t transfer a call with data information to each other if there is a LATA line between them,” said Lee Moore, the principal of 911 Consult and a former vice chairman of the 911 commission in Elmore County, Ala. “Today, it looks stupid … and everyone likes to make fun of the Bells, but the fact is that they were significantly regulated at the time.”
A much different environment envelops the 911 community today. In addition to the wireline telephone network, U.S. consumers increasingly use wireless and broadband technologies such as voice over IP (VoIP) to make voice calls. Moreover, voice is not the only means of communicating today, as delivering messages with text, photos and even video is commonplace in an IP-centric world — capabilities never envisioned when the existing 911 network was designed.
Given this, consensus is growing that the next generation of 911 services should utilize IP technology. In addition to enabling more robust features and greater cost efficiencies for the 911 network, such a migration should be easier and less expensive than trying to make modern technologies conform to outdated legacy systems.
IP-based 911 systems also would enable affordable redundancy and the ability to re-route 911 calls to other PSAPs when failures occur, which was needed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year, Moore said.
“Now is the time to address this. I don’t want to see VoIP — or whatever the next thing down the pipe is — being forced to conform to the old tandem network, which is limited,” he said. “It’s very secure, very reliable, but — as we saw last year on the coast [during Hurricane Katrina] — when one of them goes bye-bye, it goes bye-bye. That’s because my telco chooses not to have any backup strategy for a tandem failure.”
Certainly there are plenty of people looking at the issue. Trade organizations such as the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), local public-safety entities, state governments and even a federal agency — the U.S. Department of Transportation — are working to make the vision of a next-generation 911 network a reality.
NENA’s effort to develop an IP-friendly I3 guideline has received considerable attention, and an I3 draft proposal is expected to be ready later this year, said Roger Hixson, NENA’s technical issues director.
Stephen Meer, chief technology officer for Intrado, said the I3 development process is doing an excellent job of identifying the available functionality that public safety needs in future 911 systems, but the group working on I3 is light on actual operational experience, he said. As a result, Meer fears that the I3 guidelines will lack the detail that helps make the current 911 system reliable.
“The current 911 system was built on a strong foundation of telephony. When you go to VoIP, you don’t have any Bell standards to fall back on,” Meer said. “For instance, a 5E switch is a pretty stable piece of hardware. With a softswitch, there’s an update every week.
“The general constituency of NENA doesn’t understand how it works … and shame on us for not doing a better job of educating them. There are a lot of upstart companies offering VoIP at the table, but none of the [incumbent] telcos are there.”
Meer said public-safety entities that want to save money and gain control of their 911 systems — for instance, by deploying their own selective routers rather than relying on such services from the local exchange carrier (LEC) — may be in for a rude awakening upon taking such action, if only because of the increased security necessary in an IP-based network. In addition, some of the next-generation vision often is not being translated well into real-world terms, according to Moore.
“I think there is a good effort being expended on what we would like [the next generation of 911] to look like, but I don’t think anybody has come near to talking about or defining how we make that happen,” he said.
Indeed, a prerequisite of all the design proposals is for each PSAP to be connected to a broadband pipe — a scenario that increasingly is possible, but is far from a reality today, Moore said.
“It’s not really the selective routing part, it’s not really the provider, it’s not really the technology,” Moore said. “It’s that, right now, a PSAP typically has [centralized automatic message accounting] two-wire trunks coming in that the LECs put in place, and that’s the only connectivity they have to the outside world. It goes back to the oldest thing in the book: ‘It’s the pipe, stupid.’”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
As with much of public-safety communications, most experts believe the technology to provide next-gen 911 generally is available today. IP-based equipment for call-taking positions in the PSAPs has been on the market for some time, and there are multiple proposals regarding the design of the next-gen 911 system.
There are differences of opinion regarding which of these options is best for serving public safety and encouraging competition among carriers, but there is little argument that each can work effectively.
“Technically, we’re ready today,” said Dick Dickinson, director of public safety for 911 vendor TeleCommunications Systems.
That may be the case within the network, but industry experts remain concerned about location technologies for next-generation systems. In fact, many are concerned that the location technology for wireless E911 still has not advanced as quickly as predicted.
“I don’t think there are any technical issues left, except one big one — automatic-location detection,” NENA’s Hixson said.
No such location technology for VoIP is being used today, so the location determination is dependent upon manual updates by VoIP users, which are not very reliable.
When automatic-location technology is implemented, VoIP service providers have asked that their offerings, which often can be moved and remain functional, be held to the wireless standard for location accuracy. But many say that getting a two-dimensional GPS location within 50 meters, 67% of the time — the tightest standard for wireless E911 — is of limited value in urban settings, particularly where there are high-rise buildings.
Intrado’s Meer said he believes VoIP users in a fixed location should be located at a level similar to fixed wireline telephony users.
“Today, [with wireline E911], you get location information down to the individual locked door; that’s what makes 911 so valuable,” he said. “With wireless, the location can be off by 300 feet in any direction with no regard to height. If we’re going to spend a bunch of money to advance to next-generation technology and discover that public safety can’t act on it, that would be a big mistake in public policy.”
To this end, Intrado conducted a trial of automatic-location technologies in the very trying spectral environment of New York City (see story on page 18). While that test only provided XY coordinates for location, one of the participants — Rosum, a vendor that uses TV signals to automatically locate any device — has begun testing a solution that also would provide height in its location information.
“We’re making large strides toward that,” said Jon Metzler, director of business development for Rosum. “Public safety, in particular, has been very vociferous in saying, ‘Wireless 911 did not give us Z, but we would really like it this time around.’ We’ve heard that, so we’re doing our best to address that, and we think we have something.
“We’re trying to get within one floor or two floors, which is certainly a large leap from nothing at all.”
Resolving the technical aspects of next-generation 911 systems may be complex, but most industry experts believe it will be relatively easy compared with unraveling the non-technical interests of service providers, vendors and politicians.
This month, the state of Indiana is scheduled to connect the last of its PSAPs to its new fiber network, which will make all PSAPs throughout the state Phase II wireless-enabled, said Tim Berry, state treasurer and chairman of the Indiana Wireless Advisory Board that supervised the creation of the network, known as IN911. By the second quarter of next year, all wireless carriers will be connected to the four selective routers in two locations (redundant routers at each location) that will allow full IP functionality, he said.
“That’s when we will be able to look at all of the uses — utilizing a camera phone, utilizing OnStar information through the network, utilizing text messaging to a PSAP,” Berry said. “We are looking at how to integrate all of those alternatives into the network because the network will have that capability at that point in time.
“That doesn’t mean all those transactions will take place immediately, but the network will have the technical abilities … for those applications.”
But these next-generation capabilities currently cannot be shared with wireline 911 callers because IN911 — operated by Indiana-based INdigital telecom — can only be used for wireless 911 calls, Berry said. “We only have jurisdiction over wireless in the state of Indiana. Landline 911 is controlled at the local level and is implemented that way, and the state board does not have purview over that,” he said. “From a technical standpoint, it probably would work, but from a jurisdictional standpoint, the board does not have authority.”
Similar jurisdictional questions are being asked throughout the country. While traditional landline 911 policy typically has been developed at a local level, wireless regulation often is handled at a state level. Meanwhile, the FCC and Congress have expressed the opinion that IP-based services such as VoIP fall under federal jurisdiction.
Even if the various government entities can resolve these turf issues, a significant mindset change will be needed to alter the relationships between PSAPs and incumbent LECs in a manner that will bring competition to the 911 market, said TCS’ Dickinson.
Throughout the decades of 911 service, most PSAPs have been dependent largely on the LECs for selective routing, connectivity to the network and for populating databases with customer information such as phone numbers and addresses. Today, these functions can be done independently, but some PSAPs are tied into long-term, bundled contracts — or state laws — that prevent them from shopping for better deals on a piecemeal basis, Dickinson said.
“That’s the way the tariffs are written, and the way the LECs protect their monopoly,” Dickinson said, noting that a couple of TCS attempts to provide selective-routing services to PSAPs have been undermined in this manner.
Consultant Moore echoed this sentiment, noting that LECs are not going to relinquish a profitable “cash cow” like 911 service contracts easily.
“Every time we talk about doing something like [using third-party 911 vendors], the telcos will pull something else out,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘If you don’t do selective routing, then we can’t do wireless for you because that’s inherently part of the process. And by the way, if you don’t do selective routing, we won’t sell you and give you any customer information, so how are you going to populate your database?’”
In discussions with LEC representatives, Moore said he has been told that PSAPs abandoning the existing system will force the phone companies to raise the rates charged to other users.
“They tell me, ‘The reality is, if we start having 911 systems drop out of the plan, we will more than likely raise the cost to the rest of them. Do you want to be responsible for that?’” Moore said. “That’s the nuclear [bomb] that they’re holding.
“They’re going to call every one of the little dinky county PSAPs and go, ‘Because this city wants to do their own thing and save themselves money, it’s going to cost you money in the long run.’ It’s going to be a real ugly, nasty screaming match.”
Meer said Intrado’s stance has been that customer records belong to the service provider but acknowledges the issue may need to be revisited.
“Some of the biggest questions are who owns the data and where are the business flows,” he said.
But the biggest problem in upgrading to next-generation 911 systems may be finding money to pay for the upgrade to IP infrastructure, said APCO President Wanda McCarley.
“I think, by far, the biggest hurdle is going to be funding,” she said. “Remember, we still don’t have basic wireline 911 in some places.”
Indeed, securing funding for 911 has been extremely difficult, particularly in rural areas that don’t have the customer base to generate significant funds from user fees attached to communications bills. And Congress hasn’t been much help, having failed to appropriate a dime toward the $1.25 billion authorization for PSAP upgrades passed in 2004.
With all of these factors in mind, those interviewed expressed a range of timelines regarding the implementation of next-generation 911 systems. All agreed it would be at least a decade before 50% of PSAPs have next-generation technology, even though call centers in populous areas may have the means to make the transition sooner.
“Everybody’s talking about it, but there are so many giant holes regarding how we might get something started,” Moore said. “There is no current transition plan that I have seen that says, ‘All we need is one big company to step up and do this, and this is Step 1.’
“There’s got to be a path, and the path cannot be, ‘Wait until we auction spectrum and the government’s going to give us $3 billion to build this huge network.’ That will never happen.”
Despite this sentiment, it’s important that public-safety entities, service providers and vendors continue to pursue solutions that will enable next-generation PSAP functionality, APCO’s McCarley said.
“I think we absolutely have to work on it,” McCarley said. “The technology of today isn’t going to last forever.”
Indeed, the transition is inevitable, so PSAP managers should make decisions today in preparation for the change in the future, NENA’s Hixson said.
“If you’re going to replace your equipment in the near term, make sure it works with IP,” he said.
NENA development step: i 1
NENA standard name: (Immediate, early methods) not a standard
Description: Supports fixed VoIP callers and delivers calls to either a 10-digit emergency line or thru a CLEC interconnection (traditional E911). Location information is not provided. No PSAP equipment changes.
NENA development step: i 2
NENA standard name: 08-001 Interim VoIP Architecture for Enhanced 911 Services (dated December 2005)
Description: Supports ANI, ALI and selective routing. Delivers calls from both fixed and nomadic VoIP users. No PSAP equipment changes — requires wireless-type ALI interface (such as E2), and a new IP-based call originating network interfacing to current E911 systems. Note: Current forms of VoIP to E911 are not full Interim Solution, although they are often referred to a i2. They are actually pre-i2 as they do not provide all major aspects of the Interim Solution design.
NENA development step: i 3
NENA standard name: 08-00x Functional and Interface Standards for Next Generation 9-1-1 (expected approval 4Q2006), includes architectural design
Description: Basis for Next-Generation 911 (NG911). Supports ANI, ALI, Selective Routing functionality, real-time text messaging and multimedia (still images and full streaming video). Delivers calls from fixed, nomadic and mobile VoIP caller and from ILEC, CLEC and cellular wireless networks via IP transport. Supports extended IP and data capabilities at the PSAP, access to a wide variety of distributed databases and elimination of the physical selective router switch. Will be fully integrated into the National Emergency Calling IP Network.