Trends in telecommunications mobility and convergence have put the nation's 911 system at a crossroads. The growing market penetration of both mobile telephones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony has underscored the limitations of the current 911 infrastructure. The 911 system, based on decades-old technology, cannot currently handle the text, data, image and video that are increasingly common in personal communications and potentially critical to emergency response. Each introduction of a new access technology (e.g., wireless) or expansion of system functions (e.g., location determination) requires significant engineering and system modifications.
Unlike landline 911 calls, not all wireless 911 calls are delivered to dispatchers with automatic number information (ANI) and automatic location information (ALI), two pieces of information that aid in identifying the telephone number and geographic location of the caller.
These issues drove the passing of the Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911 Act of 2004 (ENHANCE 911) that requires all parties involved support the standards in two phases. Then about a year ago, the U.S. Congress passed the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (NET 911 Act). Since then, what has it achieved? How has it affected the country's public safety answering points (PSAP)?
Image of a successful E911 service
In addition to difficulties wireless 911 calls pose, the increasing use of VoIP communications has compounded the problem because when a 911 call is on some interconnected VoIP services, caller location cannot automatically be determined.
Given these challenges, successful E911 service implementation requires the cooperation of multiple distinct entities: Wireless carriers, wireline telephone companies (also known as local exchange carriers), VoIP providers, and (PSAPs). For example, when a 911 call is made from a wireless telephone, the wireless carrier must be able to determine the location of the caller, deliver that information to the database provider and transmit that location information to the PSAP, and the PSAP must be capable of receiving such information.
In order to receive ANI and ALI, PSAPs must upgrade their operations centers and make appropriate trunking arrangements (i.e., establish a wired connection between the PSAP and the networks of the local wireline telephone companies) to enable wireless E911 data to pass from the wireless carrier to the PSAP. Once a PSAP is technologically capable of receiving this information, the PSAP can submit requests to wireless carriers for E911 service. Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, this request triggers a wireless carrier's obligation to deploy E911 service to a PSAP.
Upgrading the 911 system to an IP-enabled emergency network will enable E911 calls from more networked communication devices, enable the transmission of text messages, photographs, data sets and video, enable geographically independent call access, transfer, and backup among and between PSAPs and other authorized emergency organizations, and support an ''interoperable inter-network'' of all emergency organizations. Some PSAPs are able to fund upgrades from their existing budgets, but other PSAPs must rely on funds collected by other means to maintain operation and make capital improvements to 911 services.
State of the industry
Just as it took years for the ENHANCED 911 Act to achieve noticeable progress, the NET 911 Act didn't immediately fix the issues that it intends to solve, nor are there many PSAPs that can show significant progress directly due to the passing of this important legislature. Some entrenched vendors and industry experts even grumble that it hasn't accomplished anything. However, both culture and infrastructure take time to change; time that isn't standing still while more communication technologies and standards arrive on a seemingly monthly basis.