June 1, 2004
One of the advantages of VoIP is that it eliminates geographic boundaries traditionally associated with voice networks, allowing users to travel while making and receiving phone calls as if they were at home or their office. However, this convenience creates some technical challenges for enhanced 911 services, including the ability to identify the caller’s location when an emergency call is made from a telephone or other device that does not remain fixed.
Groups such as Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), which develops communications and information technology standards, are launching policy committees to work with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to create technical solutions allowing VoIP customer to reach 911 call centers during emergencies.
In response to a call from the FCC, Nortel Networks has submitted a proposal for an architectural framework that will enable operators at public safety answering points (PSAPs) to respond to emergency calls and quickly determine the precise location of the caller by coupling of VoIP interfaces with field-proven E911 technology used in today’s wireless networks. The proposal will be reviewed as part of NENA’s ongoing work in the development of short- and long-term solutions for E911 access.
Meanwhile service providers are grappling with ways to solve the problem now. Upon completion of its acquisition of hosted IP PBX provider GoBeam Inc., broadband provider Covad Communications Group Inc., for example, plans to immediately introduce VoIP business offerings, which support enhanced 911, in the same footprint as its broadband availability.
With GoBeam’s capability, the user programs his or her locations, and the service follows the user, allowing 911 dispatchers to trace a person’s whereabouts.
GoBeam (to be known as Covad once the acquisition is complete) uses IP capabilities to place calls and deliver feature services, but relies on the existing telecom infrastructure for services such as E911 and directory assistance. GoBeam contracts with local service providers and establishes local phone numbers through that ILEC or CLEC. “Any number on [the] network is registered by the local number provider and the 911 data is provided in that methodology,” says Steve Lail, Covad’s vice president of voice deployment. “The local 911 service bureau knows when an office phone number goes off the hook, is hooked up to an address, etc.”
Covad plans to provide consumer VoIP service beginning next year. It also might pursue using VoIP service bureaus to get IP-based E911 access for customers because using a service bureau would allow Covad to provide seamless nationwide access, instead of relying on separate, local phone companies. “The service bureau will take a telephone number regardless of area code and will map that telephone number to a specific location and will provide same location info to local E911,” he explains.
One such service bureau is Intrado. Its VoIP Emergency Calling Services (ECS) product recognized as an interim VoIP 911 solution by NENA. Deb Stone, senior offer manager for VoIP offerings at Intrado, says the product includes development includes three phases - 0, 1 and 2. In Phase 0, ECS recognizes phone numbers outside a caller’s geographic rate center and still routes those 911 calls to the proper PSAP, Stone says. To make this happen, service providers send pre-provisioned customer data to Intrado, which then codes the information to associated PSAPs. “Intrado does all the back-office work of managing data about PSAPs,” Stone says. “We manage all our customers’ data, and so, when the caller makes a 911 call, the service provider queries Intrado and we provide the routing instructions - during the call.” But, customers still must tell service providers when they are moving so the provider can map the subscriber’s changed service to a new PSAP.
In the final step, Phase 2, to be available by year’s end, Intrado is enhancing the ECS product with the ability to provide data on the caller’s location to the PSAP. “We’ll also support near real-time mobility. That is to say, when you move and you tell your service provider, we’ll load up the system within 10 minutes,” says Stone. “So, you still have to tell your service provider, but it’s pretty easy to do.”
“Some of the innovations we’ve put into V9-1-1 make it an attractive solution for all-size carriers,” Stone says. “The concept is that carriers will route these 911 calls to the existing infrastructure without the use of dedicated access lines to each selective router. So, for [any company] from a start-up that has one or two softswitches nationwide to a larger carrier or even an ILEC going out of region, this should facilitate getting nationwide coverage quickly.”
Intrado ultimately intends to sell V9-1-1 as a turnkey, fully managed service. The company is working toward a solution that, when a caller plugs a router unit into a new broadband connection, the broadband connection will tell the 911 network where that subscriber is located.
Wireless data solutions provider TeleCommunications Services also is working on the VoIP E911 problem, creating a suite of solutions to be available later this year. Whether the equipment (such as IP-enabled handsets) will be in place to handle some of those solutions remains to be seen.
For now, TCS’s VoIP E9-1-1 Automatic Line Identification (ALI) Service, works with fixed line and nomadic IP calls. It prevents the problems of 911 calls being routed to reception desks instead of the emergency operator. It also eliminates the issue of 911 personnel not being able to pinpoint the caller’s location. The issue of getting 911 services to someone using a laptop and USB headset to place calls as she is walking around on a university campus, for example, is more challenging than providing emergency services to someone known to be in a static location.
With the nomadic capabilities, a user can plug the laptop into an IP wall jack in a conference room, then move to a classroom, then move to another location. The ALI service correlates current geographic service and the nearest street address to pinpoint the 911 caller’s location. An extension of that service, the ALI Link, lets any VoIP service provider interconnect to any existing PSAP connection supporting basic wireless E911 services.
TCS already is planning for the mobility phase of VoIP calling, although the equipment for mobile VoIP has not been developed. Mobile VoIP is different from nomadic because it will mean less equipment and more range - mobile VoIP will not require plugging into wall jacks, since people will be moving through Wi-Fi baystations, much like cellular tower coverage now. Mobile VoIP presents the biggest challenge, says Tim Lorello, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, because phone numbers and a caller’s location will not automatically match without technology to bring the information together.
TCS is working on a positioning center that will interact with a variety of VoIP switching infrastructures to pass along current known location information.
That technology will be part of the suite of VoIP services to be available, but that does not mean the industry will have the equipment available yet to support those advances. Lorello predicts that mobility with VoIP phones is about 2 to 5 years away.
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