Make 911 Use IP, Not The Other Way Around

by Bruce Stewart

CNET just published an article that makes the excellent point that our whole 911 emergency system would benefit greatly from being converted to an IP-based system. Rather than devote a lot of energy to making VoIP carriers work with the current outdated 911 technology, let's instead make the 911 system work over IP, and glean all the advantages of the more flexible nature of VoIP. Citing the widespread problems that were experienced in the 911 system during Hurricane Katrina, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Emergency Number Association urges that we look into a complete IP-based overhaul of the system.

"Lots of things went wrong during the natural disasters of 2005," said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the nonprofit group NENA. "It was a wake-up call for the whole country that we aren't diverse enough in our emergency communications system."

An IP-based 911 system would obviously ease the burden of E911 compliance that the VoIP industry is currently struggling with, but as the article rightly points out this is a huge proposed project that would take a lot of time and money to implement, and right now it's just in the earliest investigative phase. Where the money would come from for such a large upgrade is a big question (typically, emergency communications networks are controlled and funded by local governments), but there are currently studies underway by some local emergency agencies to look into moving to IP-based systems. So while U.S. VoIP providers aren't likely to see any relief from the latest E911 requirements in the current FCC climate (no matter how hard they correctly argue that the cellular providers have been given much more leniency), at least the possibilty of an IP-based 911 system is being studied.

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that companies offering VoIP service that replaces regular phone service retrofit their technology to make sure customers can access enhanced 911 services.

The National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, the nonprofit organization representing local 911 providers, says this is a temporary solution. Though the group is actively helping VoIP providers meet the FCC requirements to work with the old system, it says a better solution would be for the emergency networks to start using IP. NENA is already developing new standards and best practices for building these IP-based networks.

"The consensus is that IP enabled networks is where the future is going," said Robert Martin, executive director of NENA. "But we can't just turn on a new network and expect that everyone will be on the same page. The old infrastructure is going to be around for some time."

The IP technology needed to transform old 911 networks into next-generation networks is already available. But politics and squabbling over how to fund such a project will likely delay any wide-scale deployments, say the experts.


Ken Hansen
2006-01-17 10:06:30
Why has everyone forgotten that "dead" telco lines still support 911 calls? This is required by the FCC, so that if I fail to pay my phone bill I still have access to the 911 emergency service.

If you are replacing your home phne with VoIP, you are most likely already wired to teh local telco, and are getting 911 service already. What is needed is a call diverter that sends VoIP 911 calls to the existing wired phone connection.