Internet Telephones and 911: Emerging Technology – And Emerging Problems

July 1, 2005

Throughout history, people have reported fires in a number of ways. Watchmen’s rattles, church bells and locomotive rims gave way to Gamewell boxes and, eventually, the telephone. For many communities, the corner fire alarm box has long been a thing of the past, and pay telephones are disappearing rapidly. Today, cellular telephones account for many emergency calls. In fact, in many communities, cell phones account for a majority of 911 traffic. Recently, however, a new method of calling for help has moved to the forefront – the Internet.

Chances are you have seen one of many TV commercials proclaiming, “People do stupid things.” Among the 60-second spots are ones showing a child swinging a baseball bat wildly and breaking a sliding glass door and a snowmobiler making a dangerous jump. These advertisements are part of a campaign by Vonage, a company whose primary message is the contention that paying for conventional telephone service ranks right up there with these other idiotic stunts.

Vonage is the largest of several companies specializing in providing customers with Internet-based telephone service. Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) makes use of modern technology to use a home or business broadband connection to make and receive calls. VOIP users don’t surf the web to make connections, but basically use the Internet as their telephone network. In early March 2005, Vonage became the first provider to have over 500,000 subscribers and reportedly was signing up customers at the rate of 15,000 per week. Vonage also was the first such provider to be sued, by the State of Texas, which alleged that Vonage failed to adequately inform consumers about the shortcomings of 911 access through VOIP.

According to Brooke Schulz, senior vice president for corporate communications and regulatory affairs at Vonage, the company may be getting a bad rap.

“Vonage was the first VOIP provider to allow access to basic emergency services,” Schulz said. “We realize that it is not enhanced 911, but we don’t have the access to the Bell networks (that deliver calls to the E-911 trunk lines) that the cellular companies have. We have been working for two years toward obtaining that, and are currently in negotiations, but even the recent FCC actions fall short in this regard. Until this is worked out, public safety agencies should assign trained dispatchers to administrative lines, because that is where we have to route 911 calls.”

To understand the issues at hand, it is necessary to review a brief history of 911 and examine the differences between the way that telephone networks and the Internet work. Although Congress did not officially designate 911 as the national emergency number until 1999, it was first used in 1968. Even then, three-digit emergency dialing had already proven successful overseas. Initial 911 systems were “basic” in that they allowed for a free call from pay telephones, provided an easily remembered number and delivered the call to a public safety agency. Not delivered, however, were the caller’s address and telephone number. The advent of “enhanced” 911 filled this void with Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Information (ALI).

The technology and networks used in 911 was based on the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) because hard-wired phones were our primary means of communication. Area codes and exchange prefixes were assigned to clearly defined geographic areas, and a feature known as “selective routing” assured that emergency calls were delivered to the appropriate response agencies. Although there may be millions of telephone numbers in any given state, database tables could be created to direct this electronic traffic because the location of every telephone was known. Telephones were fixed devices that were anchored in one spot and physically connected to a wire.

As wireless telephones and pagers became popular, this began to change. New area codes had to be created to keep up with the demand for additional phone numbers. Some area codes were created as “overlays” that overlapped one or more existing codes. In other places, area codes were divided. This solved the number crunch, but forever changed the concept of how area codes are assigned.

Another change in concept came with the introduction of number portability. Consumers were now free to keep their existing telephone numbers even if they changed carriers. Exchanges were no longer hard coded. VOIP will take this change ever further, and area codes will cease to be meaningful. There will come a day when each of us is assigned a contact number, much like a Social Security number, that will follow us for life. Wherever we are in the world, we will be able to be reached. I have specifically not called this a telephone number, because the devices used to communicate by future generations may have little resemblance to the device invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

Cell phones operate more like radios than telephones, so some of the biggest challenges for emergency dispatchers have involved determining the caller’s location and routing the call to the proper Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Wireless providers now use one of two methods to provide location data. Network-based solutions use a principle akin to triangulation, where information gathered by the network is used to approximate the origin of the signal. Handset-based solutions use global positioning system (GPS) chips inside the telephones themselves to provide this information.

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted accuracy standards, it is fair to say that these standards, although a vast improvement over having no standards at all, are a far cry from what could be called pinpoint accuracy. The solution to selectively routing calls to the correct agency has been addressed through the use of assigning signals received by a cell tower to a primary PSAP. For towers well within the PSAP’s geographic boundaries, this is relatively simple. However, where jurisdictions are small, and where towers are located near the boundary line, it becomes more complex. Many cellular towers have multiple “faces,” each receiving calls from a different direction. Calls are typically routed to the PSAP having jurisdiction over the largest portion of the signal pattern. Obviously, this is less than perfect. When combined with the fact that omni-directional sites that cannot correlate signal direction still exist, it adds up to many misdirected calls.

While the wireless issue is in its second decade of wrangling, along comes VOIP. Similar to the cell phone, it is capable of making phone calls. However, since it utilizes the Internet for routing these calls, it is based on web-driven technology. This means that it essentially uses “free” networking and more modern protocols, which is good. Unfortunately, this means that it is also subject to all the downsides of the Internet, including sporadic performance, hackers and viruses. Because they depend on network connections, Internet telephones also depend on electricity to operate, so they are useless during blackouts.

But, the problems go deeper than that. VOIP providers may or may not offer 911 access, and most people automatically assume that an emergency call can be made from any telephone. Even when 911 service is on the menu, chances are that the VOIP call will be routed to a seven-digit non-emergency number. In addition to not providing the ANI/ALI that is critical to enhanced 911, VOIP calls will then compete with non-emergency requests.

Far worse consequences await, however, if these calls are directed to an administrative number that is not answered after hours. Such was the case recently in Torrington, CT, when a mother dialed 911 through Vonage after her baby stopped breathing. Instead of getting help, she heard a recorded message thanking her for calling the police department, and advising her to hang up and dial 911 if she had an emergency. Eventually, the parents transported the child to the hospital themselves, and he is now recovering. The State Attorney General is investigating. A similar situation in Volusia County, FL, had a less happy ending: a 3-month-old baby died when her mother could not reach emergency services through her VOIP phone.

Even if the call does get answered, VOIP architecture can visibly demonstrate the worldwide nature of the web. Dispatchers in Nashville, TN, got proof of this when they received a call for assistance that originated in Houston, TX. The changing face of phone service can also have an impact on the administration of 911. While it was typical for the conventional telephone companies to provide PSAPs with customer counts, wireless and VOIP carriers have not normally shared such information. In fact, since these newest carriers tend to face little or no local regulation, it is often anyone’s guess as to how many providers are located in a given area, let alone customers.

Obviously, issues like that can have a serious impact on public safety, and public safety communications organizations have been quick to comment. The Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International sent a letter to the FCC in response to Vonage’s suggestion that VOIP calls be delivered to seven-digit lines rather than to dedicated 911 trunks. APCO was critical of the proposal, accusing Vonage of “taking a 21st century technology (IP telephony) and forcing it into a 1960s method of reporting life-threatening emergencies.” (The New York City Police Department reports that more than 6,000 VOIP 911 calls have already been answered on its non-emergency administrative numbers.)

Actions taken by the FCC on May 19, 2005, in its First Report and Order on the subject sent a clear message to VOIP providers that an immediate solution to the potentially deadly problems was in order. Establishing a 120-day compliance schedule, the commission required that Internet-based calls be delivered to 911 trunks instead of seven-digit lines, and that they carry with them location information and callback number data. Local telephone providers, which historically operate the 911 network, were also ordered to offer access to VOIP providers to make sure that this solution works.

While the use of a VOIP telephone away from its registered location will still prove problematic, and while this act does nothing to alleviate shrinking 911 revenues caused by alternative technologies like VOIP, it makes significant strides toward solving the most immediately critical issues. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, in a statement released in conjunction with the Report and Order, said, “The provision of access to 911 should not be optional for any telephone service provider. We need to take whatever actions are necessary to swiftly enforce these requirements to ensure that no lives are lost due to lack of access to 911.”

Barry Furey, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.

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