Government Technology

Looking for an Answer


June 27, 2005 By

Developing emergency 911 services for wireless callers has been a long, arduous trip -- and just when a glimmer of light appears at the tunnel's end, a promising new technology threatens to take us right back to the beginning.

Many consumers are replacing their traditional residential wireline phone service with VoIP, which allows them to make calls over the Internet. It offers unlimited local and long distance calling for a low price, and gives subscribers mobility -- they can take their home or office number virtually anywhere. Unfortunately VoIP is causing trouble for the new service providers, for public safety answering points (PSAPs) where 911 calls are answered, and for policy-makers in state and federal government.

In mid-May, the FCC ruled that within four months, VoIP providers must give the same emergency 911 capabilities as traditional and wireless service -- this means providing the location and call-back number of people requesting assistance via 911, regardless of the calls' origins.

That's going to be difficult considering the nature of VoIP, which does away with the concept of a "home number."

While the VoIP/911 interface could be a more treacherous ride than the wireless one, recent developments allude to a solution in the works.


All Over Again
The situation, from a 911 perspective, is reminiscent of the migration to wireless phones and the chaos that ensued for PSAPs trying to provide enhanced 911 (E911) services for wireless customers.

To the wireless world, E911 means automatic location information (ALI) and a call-back number for every wireless caller requesting emergency services via 911. The FCC requires that PSAPs be able to locate wireless callers within 50 to 300 meters of their location.

Should the same be required for VoIP phone service?

VoIP can be a boon to businesses because staff members aren't confined to a certain location. "One advantage of VoIP is the mobility of it," said Dan Hawkins, manager of the Public Safety Technology Program for the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (SEARCH). "I can move to a different office, and my extended company may be across town, maybe across the country, and still have the same number and make calls without having to go through all the rigmarole."

If a subscriber moves from California to New York, he or she could retain the California number, including area code, with minimum fuss.

The advantage of mobility, however, could become a liability should the user need emergency services via 911.

When a 911 operator receives a call from a landline, the caller's number and approximate location automatically pop up on the operator's screen, but the system assumes the caller is calling from "home."

When a VoIP subscriber calls 911, if an address appears at all, there is no guarantee the caller is calling from that location.


Pinning the Tail
VoIP providers need only a customer's IP address, not a home address, to provide service. "With the wireless network, there is physical information associated with that handset because it knows what tower it's connected with. That tower has a physical address or place. IP addresses work differently. IP addresses can be assigned anywhere," said Brooke Schulz, a spokeswoman for VoIP provider Vonage.

Until now, VoIP customers wanting 911 services had to register for those services with their VoIP provider by supplying the calling number and a physical address after installation -- that's the only way customers can get 911 services in most areas.

This practice spurred a lawsuit in Texas, filed on behalf of a family who tried to call 911 via a Vonage VoIP hookup. The family received a recording because they hadn't registered their physical address after installation. The suit alleges that Vonage didn't make it clear enough that customers must register to receive 911 services. In a similar


| More

Comments

Add Your Comment

You are solely responsible for the content of your comments. We reserve the right to remove comments that are considered profane, vulgar, obscene, factually inaccurate, off-topic, or considered a personal attack.

In Our Library

White Papers | Exclusives Reports | Webinar Archives | Best Practices and Case Studies
Meeting Constituents Where They Are With Dynamic, Real-Time Mobile Engagement
Leveraging the proven and open Kofax Mobile Capture Platform, organizations can rapidly integrate powerful mobile engagement solutions across the spectrum of mobile image capture, mobile data capture and complete mobile process integration. Kofax differentiates itself by extending capture to mobility, supporting multiple points of constituent engagement. Kofax solutions dynamically orchestrate the user’s mobile experience from a single platform—reducing time to market, improving process perf
Public Safety 2019
Motorola conducted an industry survey on the latest trends in public safety communications. The results provide an outlook of what technology is in store for your agency in the next five years. Download the results to gain this valuable insight.
Improving Emergency Response with Digital Communications
Saginaw County, Mich., increases interoperability, communication and collaboration with a digital voice and data network, as well as modern computer-aided dispatch.
View All

Featured Papers