Buyer Beware! – WiFi E911 Service

Buyer Beware! - WiFi E911 Service
The term ‘Caveat Emptor’ is a Latin phrase for “let the buyer beware.” The term is primarily used in real property transactions, but it is applicable in any transaction. Essentially, it proclaims that the buyer must perform their due diligence when purchasing an item or service. However, some things, such as E9-1-1, are taken for granted and that is where a life safety issue can arise with potentially tragic consequences

For any E9-1-1 service you subscribe too, reading the fine print just may save your life. Don’t blindly click through the EULA.

So what the heck is a EULA?

We have all see those annoying End User License Agreements (EULAs) that come with pretty much any service or software that you use today. With more and more applications being delivered via the Cloud and over the Internet, those EULAs may change over time, and it is doubtful that anyone even begins to read their contents.

With Over the Top, Internet-based, Voice Over IP (VoIP) communications, the E9-1-1 services provided by these carriers may have some additional baggage you may not be aware of. If you read the EULA, these limitations are clearly spelled out, and the user has explicitly agreed to them by clicking OK on some form. What they likely have not realized is what they actually have agreed to.

Case in point; a large Cable provider promotes their online Internet service as a total replacement for cellular service. Utilizing their network of a “million WiFi Hotspots”, this provider promotes that you can drop your cellular service, and use your smartphone on their network, for browsing and phone calls, for just a fraction of what your current cellular provider charges. In fact, in several of their TV commercials they openly state that E9-1-1 works, even when you don’t have a WiFi connection. But if you read their disclaimer outlining the specifics of their policy on E9-1-1, it just may scare you a bit. They clearly state, in bold print, that:


While I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, this seems to be an attempt to shift the liability for E9-1-1 to me personally. I have to tell others? I should maintain alternative means for 9-1-1? What about the nice lady in the commercial? She told exactly the opposite, and not to worry because “E9-1-1 always works.” Based on this, I am very concerned that the unsuspecting public will be lead to believe they have a safety net in E9-1-1 in place on their device, when in fact, depending on many contributing factors, they very well may not.

Loopholes used for Everyday Events

Just like many people using the VPC ECRCs as a primary termination point,  this service WiFi seems to be relying on the NSI rule to establish E9-1-1 service anytime WiFi is not available. The NSI rule was designed for when a cell phone has no service plan, or the SIM card has been removed. It is under these circumstances where the device considered to be a NonService Initiated (NSI) phone, and a mechanism was implemented to provide 9-1-1 calling abilities. In this state, the phone is unable to make a regular phone call, and may not even be associated with a carrier. Devices in this state are typically old cell phones from expired contracts, and ‘burner phones’ that are out of minutes, and are the source for many phantom calls to 9-1-1 centers. Typically they were distributed to individuals who suffered financial difficulties or were battered spouses, both great reasons. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of NSI phones is creating a larger issue for 911 centers.

Current Federal Communications Commission regulations mandate that any 9-1-1 call made from an NSI phone is forwarded by the cellular carriers to a local 9-1-1 center associated with the cellular tower and sector the phone is connected too. When implemented, this practice made sense. However, times have changed, and many folks in the industry have re-evaluated the circumstances and have asked that this practice is discontinued, due to the number of false calls these devices generate to 9-1-1 centers. Reply comments to the FCC NPRM can be viewed on the FCC ECFS HERE. In fact, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in April 2015 that proposes a change allowing carriers to discontinue this practice after a 6-month window, should they adopt this change to the Commission’s rule, enacted in the late 1990s, requiring carriers to expedite wireless calls to 911. These calls would otherwise have been delayed due to lengthy call validation processes for unidentified callers that were commonly used at the time.

The NPRM notes that “the availability of low-cost options for wireless services has increased” and that due to this, they suggest that the “NSI component of the requirement is no longer necessary to ensure that wireless callers have continued access to emergency services.“ The Commission also makes note that the current inability to quickly identify the caller “creates considerable difficulty” when a 9-1-1 call reaches a PSAP when a call is received from a caller using an NSI device.

If this rule does change, and it appears that it may, how many thousands of individuals will be unknowingly caught with a device that no longer works for E9-1-1? Should the FCC force carriers to continue to forward these NSI calls? Clearly, they are a financial drain on limited PSAP resources and potentially delaying validated 9-1-1 calls. Should we continue to accommodate commercial entities collecting money from the public that are using this E9-1-1 ‘loophole’ for a purpose it was not intended for? Most importantly, who is going to explain this to the person who loses a loved one when 9-1-1 doesn’t work one day when they thought that it would.

The industry has long promoted 9-1-1 from “Any device, Anywhere, anytime.” However, if that is mandated to apply to NSI phones, effectively creating a 9-1-1 loophole that commercial entities can capitalize on, are we actually making the problem bigger?

  • NSI Phones do not provide location
  • NSI Phones cannot be called back
  • NG911 will not fix any of these problems
  • NSI Phones are a security blanket with many holes

Unless you work in Public Safety, before you read this article, these are facts you likely never knew. How many others are in a similar position, and how many have switched to WiFi only service on their smartphones and are walking around with a device that may not work in the future for E9-1-1?

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

Read my other AVAYA CONNECTED Blogs

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he provides the strategic roadmap and direction of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, and co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the EU, where he provides insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.

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