Standards will be critical for text-to-911 services
By John Snapp, Intrado
In the United States today, 87% of Americans own a mobile phone and 73% of them send and receive almost 6 billion text messages per day from coast to coast. And there is no sign of it stopping. If you have a mobile phone with text capabilities, you can check in with friends and family, order a pizza, receive sports and weather updates, schedule a haircut or book a flight all without opening your mouth. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, texting is quickly replacing TTY devices as the preferred means for communication, simply because it is faster, easier and almost universally available both within and outside the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
The reality is that texting as a primary means of communication is only going to increase, and there are already widely held misbeliefs in this country that texting to 911 is possible. Of Americans polled on this subject, 52% said they would text 911 if they had an emergency. Yet, as of today, the ability to successfully text 911 is available only in a select few locations.
As in all areas of 911, change is on the horizon. With the imminent migration away from legacy analog 911 systems to an IP-based, next-generation 911 (NextGen 911) architecture, text is coming to public safety. In fact, the big four among service providers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—have agreed voluntarily to implement text-to-911 capabilities by May 15, 2014, upon valid request from a public-safety answering point (PSAP).
As this exciting capability begins to be embraced by the public-safety community, the importance of standards designed to ensure the smooth transition becomes undisputable. Comprehensive, well-defined standards will outline, guide and enable the seamless cooperation between wireless technology providers, carriers, and local, regional, state and federal agencies so that every element and every entity aligns to deliver every text-generated emergency request for assistance to the appropriate PSAP in the appropriate amount of time.
The Complexity of Text Messaging
On the surface, sending a text message to a public safety agency is a simple and straightforward thing. Input the designated three-digit short code (911), tap in your emergency message, hit send and voila!—your message appears almost instantaneously on a call-taker’s monitor at the appropriate PSAP.
Of course, like all modern technology wonders, there is a different story below the surface—the list of necessary entities and elements to get that message delivered is quite complex. Today, it begins with the texter, a phone and a short message service (SMS) message. From there, a wireless carrier is necessary to provide the cell sites, a mobile switching center (MSC) and a short message center (SMSC). The message then will travel to a text control center (TCC) courtesy of a 911 service provider in order to convert individual SMS messages into a next-generation protocol. This creates a conversation that can be transmitted over an emergency services IP network (ESInet) and routed by the emergency services routing proxy (ESRP).
These last two elements might be provided by the same 911 service provider that maintains the TCC, or they could be under a separate 911 service provider, such as such as AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Intrado, etc.
Finally, the message is received at the PSAP on its existing call-handling equipment or a separate call-handling screen dedicated to text messages—for the moment. As future non-voice technologies are developed, such as pictures, real time text (RTT) and video, the same base architecture that supports SMS to 911 will be leveraged to support these future services.
How do we ensure that every piece of technology—each with its own production specifications, and every operating entity, each with its own operational protocols—works seamlessly with each other so every text message can travel from sender to 911 call taker? The answer is standards.
Standards at Work
As stated previously, SMS messages are the basis of current text-to-911 solutions. At some point in the future, SMS will give way to a next-generation version of messaging called multimedia messaging emergency services (MMES) that is better suited to all the digital opportunities that are possible on an all-IP architecture.
While SMS is not the last next-generation solution, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) have approved a set of standards—J-STD-110—to ensure their effective use today and to interface to the National Emergency Number Association’s (NENA) i3 architecture.
These joint standards support a flexible and interoperable environment for multiple wireless carriers and public-safety network configurations, as well as define capabilities necessary to support SMS to 911—standardized interfaces from the origination network into the PSAP, obtaining coarse location for routing, handling bounce-back messages and managing the text message dialog between the text originator and the PSAP call taker.
For the foreseeable future, J-STD-110 will govern the text workflow from the point of the text originator through the TCC, which is the boundary line between the legacy network and a next-generation network necessary to deliver the text message to the PSAP. Beyond the TCC, the workflow is guided by the i3 standards developed by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
To accomplish comprehensive next-generation texting capabilities, numerous technologies still need to be developed. For example, multimedia messaging service (MMS) supports text and pictures. SMS and MMS selection by the phone often is transparent to the user and, at times, a message to 911 could go out MMS.
For this reason, MMS also needs to be included into text framework. Additionally, text-to-911 service needs to operate over a continuous connection network with the assurance of chronological communication, which is not guaranteed with SMS. As such advancements are made, NENA will extend the i3 standards to govern an ever-increasing segment of the text solution, until full end-to-end next-generation texting is possible. Until that time, J-STD-110 will remain in place.
The Importance of Standards
The ultimate value of standards cannot be overstated. If texting involved only one or two technologies and few entities, perhaps standards would not be as important. But the reality is that we are talking about an ever-growing list of elements, organizations, vendors and agencies that all must work together. Well-defined standards let us all work in a common community and come together with compromise to establish a single method for implementing this important next-gen 911 capability.
John Snapp is vice president and senior technical officer for Intrado.