Beyond E911: 21st century emergency services

Johna Till Johnson's Eye on the Carriers: All telecom service providers should be required to provide E911 services, even VoIP companies.

I’ve long argued that any company providing telecom services -- whether infrastructure-based or VoIP-only -- should assume all the associated responsibilities of a telecom provider, including providing E911 services.

That perspective didn’t win me a lot of friends. Plenty of folks felt I was evidencing a dismaying lack of support for emerging disruptive technologies such as VoIP, and being oh-so-last century in my outmoded insistence that 911 services still mattered.

Well, they’re half-right. I don’t buy the “you’re failing to support emerging technologies” argument. Frankly, I don’t see why anyone should feel that his or her job is to “support” particular technologies (unless, of course, the person works for a vendor). For the rest of us, let the market decide -- may the best technology win.

And if the market’s regulated, rules should be technology-agnostic. A telecom provider using TDM shouldn’t be required to provide services that a VoIP-based provider can wriggle out of. If you want to provide the services, abide by the rules -- or find another business.

Moreover, these rules exist for a reason: We need a way for individuals in trouble to call for help. And folks who are incapacitated by trauma (or too young, too old or speak a different language) should be located automatically. Amusingly, one of my sharper critics was later a first-time user of 911 -- and was amazed at how effectively it worked.

Duh. That’s the point, folks -- E911 ensures that when you need help, it can get to you. And sacrificing that decades-old capability in the name of supporting particular technologies is stupid and shortsighted.

That said, it’s worth assessing the current model for E911 services and asking: Is this really the best we can do in the 21st century?

The answer clearly is "no." Telco providers of all shapes and sizes can and should be doing a lot more when it comes to providing emergency services .

So my critics are right on one point: E911 is a very 20th century approach to a 21st century problem. Carriers are uniquely positioned to proactively advise large populations of emergencies -- yet they’re not really taking advantage of these abilities.

A few weeks back, Network World reported on a service rolling out in Japan that automatically alerts cell phone users to impending earthquakes. That’s great, but it’s just a start. Think about it: what if your cell phone could warn you about traffic accidents or the homicidal escaped prisoner loose in your neighborhood?

And what about multimodal 911 services? During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, my cell phone and landline phones went down -- but e-mail and instant message stayed up. Shouldn’t there be a way for emergency calls to go out via multiple media, including e-mail, IM and Short Message Services as well as phone calls?

Clearly, this wouldn’t be easy to implement. But now that we have whizzy new technologies such as VoIP, IM and presence, shouldn’t we be thinking about how we can use them to better-enable more creative and effective emergency services?

Learn more about this topic

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FCC requires VoIP providers to offer E911


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