9-1-1: Fix it Once . . . Fix it Right

It’s no great secret that the existing E911 infrastructure in the US is well overdue for an overhaul. Does it need an upgrade? NO.. Does it need a refresh? NO..  Does it need a complete overhaul? Unequivocally, YES.

On February 16, 1968, technicians from the Haleyville Phone Company in Haleyville Alabama decided to take on and challenge Ma Bell to a race. They worked tirelessly to design and deploy the very first 911 system in the country. It wasn’t necessarily a technological revolution,  by today’s standards, but it was incredibly disruptive thinking applied to a problem that needed to be solved. Over the years, updates and upgrades were placed on our telephone network. These added capabilities like Selective Routing in the Northern Telecom DMS-100 Digital Switch Platform, as well as using CAMA trunk technology (borrowed from the Hotel/Motel industry to report room long distance to lodging operators) to provide the originating number to the PSAP operator, as this was long before the invention of Caller ID.

In the network, call routing to the right 911 PSAP was based on telephone numbers, and Ma Bell being the keeper of telephone numbers and their installation addresses. At the time, this became the de facto standard for ‘location’ discovery and proved to be very accurate. This worked well for years, and again, the technology was patched and band-aided to add capabilities like PSAP to PSAP call transfer, at least within localized areas of the country.

Then, in the mid 80’s a disruptive new communications technology reared its ugly head. That technology is what we all now know and understand as the cellular telephone. This fantastic technology provided mobility to those that had the service, initially vehicle bound, but soon these devices gained legs and were portable. First introduced as ‘bag phones,’ handheld devices became small and cheaper, and within 15 years, this new trend in communications became well entrenched in our lives.

Fast forward to today, the cellular penetration has exceeded 100% in the US, in fact, the latest report from the CTIA put the figure at 117%. While this fantastic new technology developed and flourished, the 911 emergency network remained stagnant with little to no improvements. Even the devices no longer had a fixed location, the Legacy model of the telephone number to street address correlation remained in place despite its growing uselessness.

When we look at modifying the existing 911 network to utilize the vast data that smart devices bring to the table today, everyone searches for the magical box that will convert old technology to new. Want to talk about this publicly, I always warn the crowds that this is the part where I need to use the ‘F-word,’ so please be ready and don’t be offended. There is the magical box. There’s no magic wand that I can wave to transform old to new. If you want to change the existing network to a new next-generation network, (get ready for the ‘F-word’), you’re only going to have to ”Forklift” what you have today. I know that term is not well-liked by many in the technology industry, but it is, unfortunately, a reality.

At least some of my readers will still remember growing up with the black-and-white television. At some point in time, Color TV programming became available. But until we replaced that black-and-white TV with a color set, it would be impossible did you color content. If a television station New York City utilized a black-and-white television transmitter, even if they were transmitting programs that were recorded in color, anyone receiving their signal would be restricted to a black-and-white transmission. Until they took that black-and-white transmitter and replaced it with a color transmitter, their signal would be stuck in the black-and-white world.

Now, one may argue that the black-and-white television or the black-and-white TV transmitter could be disassembled, and then rebuilt with new color components. While that may or may not be true, it is most certainly the long way around, and likely fraught with problems. This is precisely where the Band-Aid approach has brought us today.

I often wonder why the carriers and 911 database providers take this approach. Well you understand there’s a financial advantage to tying a telephone number to every device, and then creating a database for that device, it’s incredibly inefficient and limits functionality and the ability to move forward. With no technological advantage, the only alternative left is revenue, something that carriers desperately hang on to, like it’s their lifeblood.

I was recently a member of a panel discussing real-time text (RTT) at the Federal Communications Commission. During that, the question came up about location capabilities with RTT. The way text to 911 is delivered today, location is often omitted and not available to the 911 call taker. It seemed to be a legitimate question since RTT is a form of digital IP communications, the originating device, which is well aware of its location, now has the ability to communicate that information directly with the PSAP. But, I was shocked to hear the representative from a large 911 database company respond with, “we’ll use the same mechanisms that we use today, and communicate location through telephone numbers.” After hearing that response, I nearly dropped to the floor. Here we have an opportunity to correct one of the biggest problems affecting Cellular devices and 911 calls. And we have a technology that is enabling a peer-to-peer IP connection that will allow passing the explicit data from the device to the dispatcher, yet we’re going to opt for antiquated technology that is ineffective for the mission. This would be like filming a movie in high definition Color, and then buying a high definition color TV to watch it on, but sticking a black-and-white TV transmitter in the middle to broadcast the signal.

What I listened to FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel comment a week earlier on implementing Kari’s Law, there is one part of her statement that ring true. She reminded everyone that not only do we need to correct this particular problem, but we need to set a deadline of when the work would be completed. I believe by establishing specific set timelines, in applying penalties for those that failed to meet them, we’ll change the financial model to be one that will support the upgraded and refresher technology, and we won’t be left with such a dichotomy of Origination device capabilities, and the network’s ability to carry the new data.

This is not rocket science. Many of the basic principles applied by commercial enterprises apply to public safety. In fact, the only difference is the amount of resiliency and redundancy apply to the architecture. The workflows are similar, if not the same. We’ve solved the multimedia problem for the airlines, Financial institutions, and commercial retail businesses. For them, it was a competitive advantage. Their customers were made up of the same Group of citizens that want to contact emergency services through new digital channels. Large commercial enterprises were faced with a forklift of their current technology or risk losing their customer base. Now, Public Safety isn’t that same decision point. Except, they won’t lose customers, they’ll lose lives. And that is something none of us can live with.

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