Friday, April 20, 2007

Voice over IP - 911 challenges

You might be aware that today’s technology allows 911 emergency services to locate you based on information that your phone is sending back.  Traditional land lines have been able to do this for a while, based on the telephone record of where that phone number resides, and cellular technology is mandated by law to include GPS transmitters that will send your location to the 911 service.

But that doesn’t include VoIP telephone lines, like Vonage, where your internet service is your telephone line.  Congress is struggling right now to keep up with all the different communication technologies involved with emergency services.

      Today, in addition to many more ways of communicating-by voice, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.-we also have a large variety of sensors that could provide additional information to emergency dispatchers-such as digital photos and videos from cell phones, data from automatic crash notification systems, alerts from medical devices, and bio-chemical information from sensors in subways. The current 9-1-1 infrastructure, however, is not able to handle such inputs.

Not only that, but since they’ve mandated that cellular makers install capabilities to pass information to emergency operators.  Some people might be wary about this, considering that it’s discomforting to know that when using your phone some clandestine government organization might be able to track your every move, but that’s not as concerning to me as it is the government automatically thinking that mandating anything is comfortably within it’s power.

Anyway, that’s just a small bit about what Congress is trying to work out.  Mostly it’s about how 911 services get funded, since in the past it’s been a surcharge on phone service or wireless services within a given service area.  How will VoIP be charged?  Will other forms of information, like pictures taken with your phone and other types of information, be adequately funded within the existing surcharging framework?

Also, what are the challenges and legalities that need to be addressed concerning access to 911 networks?

      "Some 9-1-1 authorities are reluctant, or even refuse, to complete VoIP emergency calls," O'Leary said, "because they lack the legal safeguards that protect them from liability," which exist today for wireline and wireless emergency calls. She called for extending these protections to VoIP, as did Meer.

      Access to E9-1-1 infrastructure. "Nomadic VoIP providers, like Vonage, need access to parts of the telephone network to complete a 9-1-1 call," O'Leary said. "Unfortunately, there are areas in the country where Vonage cannot gain access to these vital network elements. By including access provisions in the legislation, you ensure that the 9-1-1 system remains a public trust, not a tool to block competition." Barbour said that NENA supports a provision in Senate bill 428 that requires owners of the E9-1-1 infrastructure to provide access to VoIP providers who require it to provide E9-1-1 service.

And you thought 911 was just another number you can dial up.

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