911 and the broadband future
Significant debate has ensued in the nation’s capital and nationwide over the past several months regarding the need for a national public-safety wireless broadband network.
This is an important issue worthy of significant debate. Policy-makers, public-safety organizations and industry representatives have spent a lot of time and energy to advance the issue towards a result that suits their best interests. NENA and the 911 community have offered their thoughts as well.
Traditionally, spectrum issues were not something in which we actively participated. However, if there is one thing NENA has come to realize, it is that the future of 911 and emergency communications in general is going to be based on IP. It also is clear that a significant amount of communications will be wireless, whether the communication is from the public to the 911 system, among responding agencies or among individual responders in the field.
In the future, the next-generation (NG) 911 system no longer will be based on the traditional public switched telephone network. Nor will first responder voice communications be based solely on older analog technology. Communications in general, emergency communications and the 911 system all are headed down the same IP path. Consequently, we need to start thinking more about the way the public communicates with 911 and how the emergency response community answers calls for help as a single issue. Therefore, NENA must be at the table regarding discussions of interoperability and public-safety broadband networks.
This is not to suggest where the lines will blur to the point that public-safety communications and 911 communications no longer will have unique aspects and issues. Generally speaking, the opposite will remain true: that the management and operation of a public-safety answering point (PSAP) will remain separate from law enforcement or fire radio communications. But advancements in technology necessitate that all aspects of emergency communications be at the table to plan for the development, management and use of public-safety networks — wired and wireless.
Increased bandwidth will be needed, in the form of wired and wireless networks, and very often the 911 center will be right in the middle of the action. Thus, as we debate the details of establishing a national public-safety wireless broadband network, I challenge all parties involved to consider the importance of 911 in these discussions.
Logically, as services are developed for the 700 MHz band, it is essential that all consumers be able to dial 911 and reach the appropriate PSAP, as is required when they use existing commercial wireless services. That is obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is the need to ensure that a public-safety broadband network is developed to deliver more than just voice and high-bandwidth data-sharing among first responders in the field.
All the descriptions of the public-safety broadband network — whether it is the vision of Cyren Call or Frontline Wireless or anyone else — speak of a nationwide, wireless IP-based broadband network. Similarly, proponents of NG911 have described the future 911 system as part of a broader emergency services system, in which 911 is simply one node on such a network. Most people think of this emergency services network as a wired network. But if we are going to develop a national wireless IP broadband network, why couldn’t such a network serve as a primary or backup emergency services network to enable NG911?
As Hurricane Katrina and countless other day-to-day and mass emergencies have demonstrated, proper protection of the public requires fully functioning emergency communications systems. Such systems must include all forms of communications and information technology, tying together all of the emergency response community, as well as the emergency-calling public — reliably and redundantly. First responder radio communications are vitally important. They will be enhanced and enriched by addressing emergency communications as a broad, seamless whole — including NG911.
Jason Barbour is the current president of NENA. He is the 911 director for Johnston County, N.C.