By Lori MacVittie, Senior Technical Marketing Manager
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONYNone of my adult children have a land line. It is unlikely they ever will – or will even consider it. They’re millennials, and grew up in a digital world where phones are mobile, kept in your pocket, and used for texting and social networking and web access, not calling mom to see how she’s doing.
It’s unlikely that they – or others sharing their view on communications – have considered what that means to their ability to obtain emergency services should they need them.
When organizations first started moving toward a converged network comprising both voice and data, the uproar over emergency services was heard loud and clear. Emergency service systems were designed to tag phone numbers to specific addresses for rapid response, based on the premise that a physical wire actually connected the phone to a location.
But that’s no longer the case. The increasingly unwired nature of technology ignores that premise and ultimately breaks the system. E911 was developed to address this disconnect and systems were added that were able to use geo-location through techniques such as triangulation as a means to pinpoint an address. VoIP complicated things yet again, and the sometimes inaccurate databases tying IP addresses to locations frustrated implementers. The addition of tablets and Wi-Fi-enabled phones only serves to exacerbate the difficulties emergency services has with trying to identify the location of a caller in need of assistance. Though most phones and tablets are enabled with GPS, the data from which could be used to solve this problem, many users are reluctant to allow any application to share that data or have turned off the functionality because of its tendency to draw too much power and drain battery reserves faster than they can update Facebook.
In North America, location is determined by querying the automation location information database, maintained by third parties (typically the ILEC). Data from the ALI can be used to route the call to the appropriate local authorities as well as determine the location of the caller. Except the way in which the ALI is updated is not necessarily compatible with mobility. It’s not necessarily updated in real time, which means despite the availability of up-to-date GPS coordinates from most mobile devices, a call to emergency services might tag you as being at home, when you’re really at the local Dunkin Donuts.
That’s a problem, and one that’s increasing as VoIP becomes more popular as a means to communicate, especially for millennials. VoIP even on mobile phones is common with the next generation, and the rising popularity of tablets (which do not come with phone numbers) encourages the use of such peer-to-peer (especially as they’re generally free) communications.
There is a growing need to find a longer-term solution to the problem of locating a caller that is accurate in real-time across both the IP and traditional carrier space. A more modern solution may require a radical change in the networking layer to support the inevitable transition of more and more communications to a digital format.
Perhaps we can take a cue from the lowest levels of the networking stack and geo-stamp packets much as we timestamp them. Perhaps there’s a need for a new Ethernet type, the E911 type, which clearly indicates packets carry time-sensitive, critical calls for help.
A more network-oriented solution – given that almost all emergency traffic flows over networks today – may be the answer to resolving the disconnect between the two worlds. Giving infrastructure the ability to geo-stamp a specific traffic type may provide the best answer, given the preponderance of availability of such data from devices whether accessing services over the Internet or a carrier’s cellular network. The emergence of LTE makes this possibility even more likely – and achievable – given the convergence under the covers of voice and data running on the same network.
It seems feasible, then, that network infrastructure play some role in ensuring that calls for help – whether via VoIP, SMS, or cellular – be identifiable when mixed in among traffic carrying status updates and streaming video of cats dancing to the latest Lady Gaga tune.