VOIP services

Emergency Alert: The State of 911

It's a common adage that accidents strike when least expected. Planning for emergencies is something that many of us overlook in our personal lives, but this attitude cannot extend to responsible communications providers as well.

I'm specifically referring to the diverse levels of 911 service that various types of providers offer. While commercial technologies seem to innovate at lightning speeds, 911 is still commonly restricted to supporting traditional services, and stretched to the breaking point in supporting wireless and VoIP 911 calls. Current 911 infrastructure is still set up to support traditional phones, but increasingly consumers are not communicating with those devices.

Today, there is an evolving communications network that has progressed far beyond fixed wireline networks. An intricate system of networks now exists with varying protocols, devices, and channels. While there are ample opportunities to roll out innovative services more in line with how people communicate today, it's important that 911 remain reliable in emergencies.

We all agree that it's our shared responsibility in the industry to improve our emergency services. However, there are many complicating factors behind the scenes that hinder this improvement. (See OTT: Learn From Telco's Past to Shape Future and What OTT Can Learn From Big Telecom.)

Consumers depend on 911, but they typically do not stop to think, especially in an emergency, about how technologically limited these services are compared to commercial communications they use daily. When an emergency or natural disaster occurs in the US, someone dials 911 and expects that help is on the way, as they are connected to the nearest emergency dispatch center -- known as a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). With traditional wireline services, the caller's phone number is automatically associated to a physical address, enabling PSAP call-takers to let emergency responders know where to deliver emergency services.

911 in an OTT world
But what happens if someone doesn't use a traditional phone? More and more, consumers are turning to OTT VoIP to handle their everyday communications needs. They are texting, sending photos, Skyping, making calls over WiFi, and the list goes on with each new innovation. With this evolving model of commercial communications, emergency communications should also be sophisticated enough to let OTT VoIP users at least contact 911, too. In fact, to ever truly become a replacement service, OTT VoIP providers must enable their users with effective connectivity to public safety when an emergency strikes.

Those who are working toward advanced levels of emergency services, such as my company, Bandwidth.com , know that it will be a process to enable fully robust 911 for OTT VoIP -- you cannot simply flip a switch to turn it on. Just like the nation's legacy public switched telephone network (PSTN) is based on decades-old time division multiplexing (TDM) technologies, so is the nation's 911 infrastructure.

Truly solving for robust emergency calling from OTT VoIP users is challenging because IP-enabled applications tend to be used on mobile devices where a pre-registered location may be of nominal value. Additionally, the ability for OTT VoIP to support text messaging triggers separate challenges that are only beginning to be confronted by the industry.

Beyond upgrading the network infrastructure to IP, accurately determining a caller's location at the time of the call becomes the most critical need. Industry standards are being developed around the vision that, in the event of an emergency, an OTT VoIP user's call to 911 could trigger a look-up into an ISP's database for current location information, which would in turn be mapped and sent to the appropriate PSAP. In time, such a process will ultimately appear as seamless to the caller as it is to a traditional wireline user today.

A texting solution for OTT VoIP is similarly built upon the ability to identify the location of the person texting 911, and know which PSAP should receive the text. Similar to the lack of text interoperability between traditional landlines and mobile end-users, emergency text messaging to the vast majority of the nation's 6,000 PSAPs, where the underlying infrastructure is TDM-based, is not supported.

For emergency text messaging and OTT VoIP to be fully deployed and ubiquitously available, PSAPs across the nation must upgrade their legacy TDM-base infrastructures to IP-based solutions. For example, the Alabama Next Generation Emergency Network, or ANGEN, is currently working on just such a statewide initiative.

One year ago, much of the eastern seaboard was devastated by the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and it reminded the country, and the telecom industry, of the importance of having reliable 911 services. As these natural disasters happen, along with every day emergencies, it humbles our industry and challenges us to provide more sophisticated services.

Emergency response is an issue that everyone in the telecom industry should be keenly focused on. As people increasingly rely on their IP communications services as a lifeline in emergencies, it is the entire industry's responsibility to ensure that widespread technological developments include innovative 911 solutions as well. The next emergency is always around the corner.

— Steve Leonard, executive vice president and general manager of Bandwidth.com .

brookseven 12/2/2013 | 12:14:10 PM
Re: regulation  

If a service is now defined "in" for 911 service, will it also be "in" for CALEA?


Steve_Leonard 12/2/2013 | 12:00:44 PM
Re: regulation Thanks for the question Sarah.  The issue revolves around the FCC's definition of "interconnected VoIP" as  opposed to OTT.  See http://www.fcc.gov/guides/voip-and-911-service for more.  As you suggest, some OTT VoIP providers do not classify themselves as meeting the definition of "interconnect VoIP" and therefore do not believe the current regulations necessarily apply.  For example, the case of an app designed solely for in-bound communications would not qualify. With the proliferation of new services that may or may not meet the current rules clearly, we do believe the FCC will act to broaden their classifications of services that must support 9-1-1, much like they have in the Text-to-911 context.  

MordyK 11/25/2013 | 3:23:29 PM
Re: regulation Sarah, To date OTT's have no binding requirements to support E-911 (that I know of atleast) unless they fall into some form of telco framework at which point there are some E-911 requirements.

Text to 911 is now enabled or will be shortly per a volutary participation of carriers in an NFC initiaitive, but there are no location requirements for those texts.

The FCC is in the process of an initiative called NextGen-911 which is essentially trying to figure out what 911 means in an all IP environment of OTT, VoIP/VoLTE, text, etc. and what the FCC's role will be.

When it comes to 911 capabilities there are essentially 2 sides to the coin and both are extremely complex. On the one hand you have all the disprate PSAP's and their infrastructure which is usually limited, as Steve alluded to in the post. And on the other side you have all the consumer facing interaction which includes mobile phone and VoIP covered by the E-911 mandates, but than you have all the other interfaces that are IP and OTT which fall into no man's land.

The problem is that no matter how much you mandate and implement on the front-end, if the capabilities are unsupported at the PSAP level its just talk.
Sarah Thomas 11/25/2013 | 10:15:52 AM
regulation Thanks for the post, Steve! From a regulatory perspective, aren't the OTTs required to support 911 in some capacity, or does that depend on how they classify themselves? Do you know where is the FCC at on enacting text-to-911 laws? 
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