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9/11 Anniversary: US gets serious about fixing emergency communications

First responder radios, 9-1-1 call centers slated for upgrades; billions of dollars needed

By , Network World
September 08, 2011 10:41 AM ET

Network World - At the 10-year mark of the nation's most devastating terrorist attack -- and one of its biggest disasters of any kind -- the United States is finally getting serious about overhauling its emergency response systems, particularly its workhorse 9-1-1 call centers.

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems, which use Internet standards such as IP to replace analog, voice-centric technology developed more than 40 years ago.

BACKGROUND: Standard for Internet-based emergency calls nears completion

NG 9-1-1 systems are more reliable because they have automatic failover between calls centers. They can accept texts, photos and videos, providing additional multimedia information to help first responders. And they provide improved access for hearing and speech-impaired citizens. For enterprise customers, NG 9-1-1 is better at pinpointing the precise location of emergency calls originating on campus networks.

NG 9-1-1 deployment faces several challenges, including how to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to upgrade the existing patchwork of city, county and state-run 9-1-1 systems.

The biggest obstacles for NG 9-1-1 deployment are "funding and how you deploy it," says Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "The deployment approach affects the economics of it and the funds required to do it."

"We're in a gradual transition to NG 9-1-1. [Call centers] run by cities, counties, regions and states will implement different pieces of the technology at different rates," says John Chiaramonte, lead associate with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "Unfortunately, it gets down to money. Funding is one of the biggest challenges facing 9-1-1 authorities."

NG 9-1-1 is geared to be one of the hottest issues in the telecom industry in the months ahead.

In August, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a five-step action plan for transitioning the nation to NG 9-1-1 services. Steps include completing the standards required to accept photos, video and text along with voice information, creating a governance framework because no single government entity has jurisdiction over 9-1-1 services, and developing funding models for the necessary hardware and software upgrades.

"The world of information and communications technology is completely different ... from 9/11," Genachowski told an audience of first responders. "The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation -- has not kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices."

Genachowski said the FCC is taking steps to accelerate NG 9-1-1 deployment, including launching new rule-making efforts and soliciting public comments. "It's vital that we identify cost-effective ways to bring these new communications technologies to 9-1-1," he added.

The FCC's NG 9-1-1 effort coincides with other government efforts aimed at boosting national emergency response systems. The Obama administration wants to invest $10 billion in a nationwide interoperable broadband network for first responders, and various proposals for funding this public safety network are floating around Capitol Hill.

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