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May 17, 2005

IP 911 – From the Perfect Future to the Imperfect Now

Someday in the not too distant future IP 911 will be much better than E911 provided as part of traditional phone service is today.  IP 911 will save lives that are not being saved today and will make 911 technology cheaper for emergency service providers so that more money to be put into actual response services.  How soon we get to this nirvana depends on how we deal with the extension of E911 services to VoIP today.

One of the great things about E911 is that it provides the location of the calling party when the caller is using a traditional landline phone.  This is possible because the phone companies know with certainty where their subscribers’ landline phones are located.  If you dial 911 from a traditional landline phone but for some terrible reason can’t stay on the phone or can’t talk, there is a very good chance that a first response service will show up at your door.  This location capability only works from some specially equipped cellphones because you can use your cellphone from anywhere.  Note that the location capability is also essential for routing a 911 call to a local emergency response center.  In an emergency, you don’t have to think about which 911 center to call even though there are many of these throughout the country.

IP 911 as I imagine it will be able to give emergency services the location from which an IP packet came.  This capability would mean that you could “call” for help with an email, a text chat message, or actually any application on an IP device which is capable of sending this yet-to-be implemented HELP! packet.   Obviously, there are times when talking is not the best way to give information about an emergency in progress.  The mapping of IP addresses to physical addresses will be implemented by the ISPs who provide you with your IP address because they are the ones who know what physical address the DSL line, cable hookup, or other fixed IP connection corresponds to.  Even WiFi providers in public places can generally give a good location because the range of WiFi is limited (this might be an incentive NOT to piggyback on your neighbor’s WiFi).  When long range wireless is being used for Internet access, locations will not be precise unless the device uses GPS or some other technology to deduce and send its own location – precisely the situation we have with cellular calls today.

Because the HELP! Packet will come to the responders as IP, applications like mapping and call transfer - even to a mobile unit on  its way to respond – can more easily be implemented than with today’s phone call based system.  Devices like heart monitors will more easily be able to make their own IP 911 requests for help.

But we’re not there yet.  This capability doesn’t exist in practice as I’ve described it.  And we do have a problem.  VoIP has proven to be a cheaper and often more capable way of handling people’s phone calling needs than the traditional PSTN.  In some cases people are saving lots of money by getting rid of all their PSTN lines and overpriced “extra” services and using VoIP solely.  But the major providers of VoIP phone replacement service in the US have not yet fully implemented all the features of E911.  And E911 IS an important service.  Yesterday I blogged about the limitations in the 911 service provided by Vonage.

Andy Abramson gives one possible reason for lack of full E911 capabilities from VoIP providers: “Now they are getting around to addressing E911, something which was on their roadmaps but never a front burner issue for the most part in an era of customer acquisition oriented efforts.”  For those who provide primarily VoIP-to-VoIP calling or cheap international calling, this is a very reasonable decision (my POV, not necessarily Andy’s).   If VoIP phones are used as virtual second lines, then the cost of providing E911 service is probably not justified – it just duplicates what the subscriber is already paying for on his or her PSTN line.

Even when VoIP is used as the primary phone, there is a technical problem in the way of implementing traditional E911.  The VoIP provider doesn’t know where the VoIP calls are coming from since VoIP devices can be attached to any broadband connection anywhere.  Normally, this is a plus.  I am overjoyed that I can take my Vonage service and my phone number with me wherever I go.  But the downside is Vonage doesn’t know where I am so can’t pass that information on and doesn’t know which local 911 center to route my 911 calls to.

Reasonably, as part of 911 enabling, Vonage requires users to go on their website and fill out a form specifying the location the service will be used from.  However, except in Rhode Island, Vonage does not pass this information on to the 911 center.  You have to be able to tell whomever answers the phone where you are.  In some cases that is not possible.  Also, Vonage routes to administrative phones in the 911 centers rather than to usual responders.  The administrative phones are not staffed around the clock.

Vonage is working on improved E911.  They recently announced a joint effort with Verizon.  I hope this will result in Vonage E911 service being as fully capable as Verizon’s (with the one limitation that you have to tell the system where you are using the service).  If possible Vonage and their rivals should accelerate this development to remove the major obstacle to their services replacing the PSTN completely.  Note that if my predictions about IP 911 above come true, implementing 911 as part of a voice service will become obsolete.  Nevertheless, until we reach that IP Nirvana, the market will demand adequate E911 in order for VoIP to serve as a complete replacement service for PSTN.

The FCC, however, may not wait for the market to “demand.”  Perhaps because of the publicity around several recent stories about failures to reach 911 services using VoIP (see Om Malik’s post), the FCC will make some kind of announcement on Thursday, May 19 about its regulatory requirements for VoIP and E911.  The announcement may just indicate further study.  Or it could, as some knowledgeable observers like Jeff Pulver fear, impose impossible-to-meet regulatory requirements on VoIP providers and stop the growth and benefits of this industry IN THE US.  The rest of the world won’t stop for us as Ted Wallingford has ably blogged in his post about actions by Canadian regulators.  Tomorrow I’ll post what I hope the FCC does.

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