Yet even in urban settings system failure has occurred. The FCC is looking into a mass failure in Maryland during a January 2011 snowstorm. Verizon’s circuits failed and more than 10,000 emergency calls could not be made. The questions to other PSAPs, service providers, and individual users: 1) Was this a limited, rare occurrence? 2) Will this type of failure affect other locations in the future?
The VOIP challenge
Mobile phones are not the only E911 challenge. New complications are sprouting as more users begin to use Voice Over IP (VOIP) technology in the home and office. VOIP technology allows users, in essence, to turn their Internet access into a phone line. This capability, coupled with cellular availability, has led to land line services being abandoned in droves. A 2011 CDC report indicated that 26 percent of households are wireless only, representing an eight-fold increase over the past six years.
Rather than solve problems with location during an emergency, however, VOIP has compounded them. The reason: Internet service assigns users an IP address, not a physical address. Information related to the user’s actual physical address is maintained by the Internet service provider.
The FCC has taken steps to enhance VOIP 911 call effectiveness. For users that have interconnected VOIP, which allows subscribers to make and receive calls using a normal telephone network, the FCC has placed restrictions on providers. First, the provider must make the subscriber aware of the limitations involved with using VOIP technology for 911. Additionally, subscribers cannot choose to “opt out” of 911 service for VOIP.
Most importantly, the service provider is responsible for obtaining the physical location where services will be in use, prior to the services’ commencement. Part of this is making it easy for the subscriber to easily update any address changes. This information, plus the phone number, must then be capable of being provided to the appropriate PSAP when the subscriber calls 911.
But what if the subscriber does not update his or her address? For example, if the subscriber unplugs his modem and takes it to a new physical location within the service provider’s territory, typically that subscriber can plug the modem in and it will work. The issue now, however, is that the physical location is not the same as what the service provider has on file for the subscriber. The subscriber’s failure to update his address creates an problem for 911 services, because his call will route services to the original physical location.
Internet service providers do have the ability to track down individuals who use their services illegally — for example, to download illicit content. They can even narrow IP/MAC address usage into a specific node, a roughly 300-subscriber area. But tracking subscribers during a criminal investigation is different from tracking them during a 911 call. Assume the subscriber can be heard involved in some violent domestic dispute — and emergency services are going to the wrong physical location, based on old address information.
Additionally, VOIP technology is not yet a perfect application. A Southern California agency admitted to receiving a VOIP emergency call from Germany and at least one or two other foreign countries. Response time to these incidents would be painfully slow. For more domestic calls, it is necessary to involve the provider — which can still slow response times to undesirable lengths.
Discussion of the potential to enhance IP technology to include the transmission of geographic location information would help eliminate this concern. Additionally, some cable providers are now adding GPS into their modems for better management of their equipment. There is hope that the same capability can be expanded into VOIP equipment and utilized to better assist with location. But again, like with wireless callers, infrastructure and money will limit this technology.
911: The next generation
The next generation involves an incredible change in emergency response. Some of the advances are coming as a result of the ways consumers are utilizing their mobile devices. Others are a result of agencies trying to find ways to communicate more effectively with citizens during both emergency and routine situations.