by Paul Korzeniowski
A major shift is under way in the telecom industry.
People increasingly use cell phones rather than landlines. And
businesses and consumers are cutting their telecom costs by installing
voice over Internet protocol links.
As a result, calls are moving from the public switched telephone
network, or PSTN, to next-generation communications, such as wireless
networks and the Internet.
While these newer technologies offer many benefits to users and
carriers, they have a limitation: They often don't work well with
emergency 911 services.
"Unfortunately, users may not know a network does not support 911
services until they make those calls," said Bob Egan, president of the
consulting firm Mobile Competency.
Problem In Crisis
In March, a family in Houston tried to call police during a break-in
and found their service provider couldn't connect 911 calls.
Spurred by such events, the telecom industry is developing a new
emergency-calling system, dubbed e911. This service works with new
technology and could give additional data to emergency responders.
The system could give callers' location information and support video
transmissions. That means callers could transmit video of a house
fire. Responders would be better prepared to offer help.
For all its promise, the e911 system still faces plenty of hurdles.
The challenges stem from how emergency calls are transmitted. Here's
how the system works: Calls start off in the user's device, which can
be a wireless or wireline phone, a computer or a personal digital
assistant. They're sent to a call routing system, such as a private
branch exchange, or PBX, switchboard or a voice communications server.
Next, the call is handed off to a telecom service provider who
delivers it to one of 6,000 911 emergency call centers throughout the
U.S. These centers are known as public safety answering points, or
Emergency operators then work with local responders, such as fire and
police departments, to ensure that the caller gets help.
Not 'Location' Designed
The old 911 system works smoothly because the network end points are
fixed. The public network carries the caller information -- caller ID
data, such as name and address -- along with the call throughout the
transmission. That's not as easy with the new telecom networks.
Unlike the public network, Internet protocol and wireless networks
were not designed to identify callers' locations. Instead, they locate
the switch or server that's controlling the call.
"Problems in pinpointing where a call is coming from can arise as
users move from one wireless PBX or (local area network) access point
to another," said Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at Infonetics
Theoretically, an ambulance could be routed to a company data center
while a 911 caller actually is a mile away in the branch office.
In 2000, the government stepped in to address such problems. The Federal
Communications Commission began by focusing on enhancing wireless
networks so they could support e911 services.
It's a critical issue, since U.S. wireless users already place 50
million 911 calls each year. Those calls account for 30% of total 911
The FCC embarked on a five-year plan that is scheduled to be completed
in December. Once finished, emergency personnel should be able to
identify wireless users' locations within 1,000 feet.
The cellular industry has been working on different ways to meet this
goal. The most popular technique aligns cellular and global positioning
GPS systems transmit information from remote devices to satellites
revolving around the Earth. During the past few years, cell phone
makers have included GPS capability in their products.
Qualcomm Unit Involved
Wireless service providers, meanwhile, have signed agreements with
firms like Cell-Loc Location Technologies and SnapTrack, a unit of
Qualcomm. They provide GPS tracking services.
That means that when 911 is dialed from a cell phone, the caller's
number can be matched to a GPS location. That data can go to a public
safety answering point and on to emergency service providers.
While helpful, this solution is not foolproof.
"GPS systems only work within certain ranges," said Mobile Competency's
Egan. "If a user is inside a building, the system may not be able to see
Another concern: Cellular carriers already have missed a few of the
They were originally supposed to complete the e911 work by the end of
2004, but they were granted an extension. "I wouldn't be surprised if
there were more deployment delays at the end of this year," said Neil
Strother, an industry analyst with In-Stat/MDR.
And only recently -- in May -- did the FCC turn its attention to voice
over Internet protocol, or VoIP.
In the long term, the federal agency wants VoIP service providers to
offer similar capabilities as the public network -- including emergency
The FCC is requiring VoIP providers to warn customers about the lack of
The Telecommunications Industry Association, an ad hoc standards-making
group, has been trying to make it possible for wireless and VoIP
networks to transmit location data in a uniform way.
The association's Link Layer Discovery Protocol-Media Endpoint Discovery
standard, which is in draft form, is designed to make it easier to share
information within the VoIP network. The standard is expected to be
added to various products during the next year or two.
So while a great deal of progress has been made in filling 911 holes,
more work needs to be done.
"Equipment vendors and service providers understand the need to
improve their emergency services," Egan said. "But time, money and
effort will need to be expended in order to deliver those
Copyright 2005 Investor's Business Daily
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: A couple times I have wondered what
will the E-911 advocates do when we eventually reach the point that
the older-style and more cumbersome landline phone system is event-
ually abandoned (over the next few years, I suspect; the telcos are
losing one or two million subscribers each year, it seems.) PAT]