• United States

E911 plans fail to impress

Apr 24, 20063 mins

A package showed up on my desk the other day from the National Emergency Number Association. It contained three copies of the association’s new publication on positioning E911 for an IP-enabled future. The NENA publication is more – or less – than I expected, both for good and bad.

E911 has been around the wireline world for many years. When you dial 911, your call is directed to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), where the number you called from is looked up in a database maintained by the phone company that associates phone numbers with the physical location of the end of the phone wire.

It is the responsibility of the phone company to figure out which PSAP out of the 7,666 listed by the FCC to connect the caller to. A significant percentage of U.S. wireline phone customers are covered by E911 and are paying a monthly fee (mine is 85 cents) to support it.

Note that in most cases, if your company runs its own PBX, the physical location of its phones will not be in the database, so the PSAP will not know where you are unless you are able to tell them.

E911 for the 185 million U.S. cell phone users is a rather different story. The FCC started asking cell phone carriers to support E911 in 1996, but to date only 10 of 390 wireless carriers have complied. The FCC has granted, in whole or in part, 173 of 184 requests by carriers to delay the deadline.

Compare this with the 120 days the FCC gave VoIP carriers to meet the same standard for their 3 million customers. Note that wireless and VoIP E911 are a lot harder to do. Because there can’t be a database of where mobile callers might happen to be when they call 911, other methods to determine a caller’s location must be developed.

NENA’s initial findings and recommendations address the future basic structure of emergency communications and are not limited to E911.

The structure they describe comes from a December 2005 report of a National Reliability and Interoperability Council focus group titled “Communication Issues for Emergency Communications Beyond E911.” (I participated in a number of the phone calls of this focus group but do not claim to be responsible for the design, even though I think it’s a good one.)

The NENA publication does change the emphasis in one area. The NRIC focus group report says a number of times the group “does not believe a new physical network is needed,” and existing and new data networks “should be organized in a distributed, not a hierarchical, architecture embracing a multiplicity of communications pathways and methods based on the Internet model.”

The NENA publication talks about “a hierarchy of interconnected local, regional and national IP networks that would enable [next-generation 911] and many other emergency communications applications.”

The report basically calls for the creation of an “emergency services IP network” rather than use existing facilities wherever possible as the report from the NRIC focus group does. Looking at the list of NENA “program partners,” one can see why the idea of governments spending lots of money on new networks might be seen as a good idea.

There is a lot of good information in the NENA publication, even if you are not an equipment or services vendor, but clearly some people think that feathering one’s own nest while protecting public safety is just common sense.

Disclaimer: Some people have claimed that “Harvard” and “common sense” should not be used together, but I did not ask the university about the above observations so am expressing my own opinion.