VoIP and E911: Locating victims through next-generation telephony
- By Imran Abbas
- Jul 01, 2006
IN the late 1990s, as cell phone use became widespread, citizens inevitably began dialing 911 to access emergency services, just as they would from a landline phone. The problem was that the technology did not allow first responders to pinpoint callers' locations with any accuracy. Wireless towers proved to be more susceptible to interference, bad reception and congestion than landlines, and were obviously lacking a clear link to any specific geographic location.
Moreover, emergency response networks continued to operate on analog while the latest gadgets were digital, creating deeper technology disconnects between the people making emergency phone calls and those taking them. As a result, cellular callers experienced drastically increased response time, which put lives in danger.
As cell phones and other wireless devices continued to inundate the marketplace, emergency services providers realized that their current 911 infrastructure was not keeping pace with technology. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrated these inherent problems with the outdated emergency communications system, as emergency workers had trouble communicating through wireless networks in New York City. The problems with 911 and wireless technologies were brought to the forefront of public awareness.
Microsoft, Nortel, LG Team Up to Market WinCE IP Phones
SEOUL, Korea -- Microsoft and LG-Nortel, a joint venture of LG Electronics and Nortel, recently announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for broad-range collaboration in VoIP, including WinCE-based IP terminals and the new WinCE 6 videophone. WinCE 6, code-named "Yamazaki," is Microsoft's new, integrated, embedded development environment for the next generation of smart devices.
Under the terms of the MoU, the scope of the strategic alliance will include joint R&D, cooperative marketing to customers and channels worldwide, and a licensing agreement for WinCE 6. The MoU builds on the strength of an existing relationship between the two companies.
"This strategic collaboration provides an excellent fit for our strategy of developing innovative IP solutions for leading telcos looking to expand into IP Centrex services and such multimedia services as video calls, MMS/EMS and other value-added services," said Jae Ryung Lee, CEO, LG-Nortel. "In the future, we plan to make a wide range of WinCE-based products available to Microsoft channel partners around the world."
Terminals based on Microsoft's new WinCE 6 platform provide multimedia processing and will serve as a platform for application-oriented enterprise and residential solutions based on embedded devices.
"Through this partnership, we anticipate substantial sales of embedded solutions in the area of VoIP, as well as the establishment of a leading position in the IP phone and IP videophone market through WinCE 6," Lee said.
Microsoft and LG-Nortel expect to conclude a definitive agreement within the next few months. At that time, new WinCE 6-based IP phone designs and features will be announced.
Doing Something About It
In response, the Federal Communication Commission called for an examination of the technical and operational issues of updating emergency communications through Enhanced 911 (E911). The ultimate result was an E911 requirement for carriers to report the telephone number of a wireless 911 caller and the location of the antenna that received the call. According to the federal legislation, the majority of wireless devices must allow emergency responders to pinpoint 911 callers within 50 to 300 meters of their location.
As might be expected, technology continues to outpace legislation, and communication technologies have advanced even further, today, enabling calls to be made over the Internet. This service, called Voice over Internet Protocol, presents both opportunities and challenges to emergency personnel. It has a vast potential to increase response capabilities, but flawed VoIP implementations can cause yet another disconnect between first responders and citizens in distress.
Similar to the spread of cell phones in the consumer market, VoIP implementations are becoming more common in the commercial market, especially in new or renovated buildings. Based on Internet networks, VoIP saves businesses time and money by circumventing the need for traditional phone networks in favor of high-speed Ethernet connections. VoIP also offers a wide variety of features such as video conferencing and worker mobility. For example, an executive can dial and answer calls from any location with an Internet connection using his associated phone number.
However, because VoIP is still a fairly new technology, 911 calls often are an afterthought when considering VoIP implementation. There's an assumption among purchasers of VoIP systems that the capability is automatic, just as it is when they pick up a landline telephone.
That is far from the case.
Crushing the Assumptions
Such assumptions can be deadly at worst, and costly least. If 911 capability is not built in, users of the phone system actually will be unable to call 911 in an emergency. They will have to use their cell phones, which still provide less accurate location information than a landline telephone or properly configured VoIP phone.
Even if 911 capability is built in, central call processing -- one of the keys to VoIP system efficiency -- can interfere with 911 communications if not handled properly. In a multi-site environment, VoIP calls are processed at one location -- often the main office of an organization. If the dial plan is not configured correctly for 911 calls, fire and rescue personnel can respond to a fire at a company's main location, even though a fire is at a satellite office miles away. They also can arrive at the correct building, but be stymied by a system that tells them the 911 call came from the first floor, when it really came from the seventh. The result is wasted time, resources and possibly human life.
Apart from the fundamental welfare of building occupants, it is important to note that federal law requires that all phone systems, including VoIP, have emergency dialing capability. VoIP systems unable to dial 911 leave building owners and managers at risk of legal liability in the event of an emergency.
VoIP implementers also must not assume system users will know how to dial 911 on their new phone system. Training is essential. If employees normally dial 9 to call outside the building, they must know whether they need to dial 9, and then 911 to reach emergency services. Ideally, the dial plan should be set up to account for all various possibilities of 911 dialing. To eliminate the possibility of confusion, employees should be able to dial both 911 and 9, then 911.
Further, dialing plans should account for misdials. Normally, VoIP experts will allow a delay of several seconds after 911 is dialed, in order to ensure the caller did intend to dial emergency services instead of an international phone number, for example. With proper training, users should be able to reach emergency services through their VoIP system and will not be resigned to dialing 911 over their less-precise cell phones.
Once the VoIP system is configured properly, it must be tested. Most VoIP implementation experts will test the VoIP phone lines extensively. First, they will alert the emergency call center about the test. Then, they will call 911 directly, usually in the middle of the night, when call volumes are lowest, and verify the location of the information received by the call center.
While still not completely mainstream, VoIP implementations will become more common. By increasing the awareness of the requirements and difficulties surrounding VoIP, the new technology should not suffer the same technology disconnects as cell phones and wireless networks. In fact, when implemented properly, VoIP can provide first responders with more detailed information about the caller's location than ever before. A feature of VoIP included in the user's IP address can tell first responders the specific location of a call, even down to the desk the call came from. This capability equips first responders with greater pre-situational knowledge, helping them do their jobs better and faster. Furthermore, VoIP, like traditional phone systems, will remain reliable when wireless networks fail.