FCC aims to add text, images, video to 911 services

The Federal Communications Commission is looking at ways to integrate advanced IP communications into the current voice-based 911 emergency call system, allowing it to also receive text, images, video and data.

The expanding use of smart phones and other IP-enabled devices not only makes a next-generation 911 system important, but an FCC analysis shows that it could be cheaper to upgrade than to maintain the current system.

The FCC has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on if and how it should speed development and deployment of Next Generation 911 technology.

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“While continuing to ensure reliable voice-based 911 service will always be essential as we migrate to NG911, adding these non-voice capabilities to our 911 system will significantly improve emergency response, save lives, and reduce property damage,” the commissioners said in the Sept. 22 notice.

The notice also seeks comment on whether 911 traffic should be prioritized during periods of congestion in an emergency. When infrastructure is damaged and people all reach for their phones at the same time, telephone systems — both wired and wireless — can become overburdened, cutting users off from emergency services when they are most needed.

The Aug. 23 East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene four days later “have been recent reminders that concentrated demands on the capacity of commercial communications networks during and immediately after emergencies can hinder the ability of consumers to make voice calls, which in turn can jeopardize their ability to contact 911,” the notice states.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan calls for encouraging “innovation in the development and deployment of Next Generation 911 (NG911) networks and emergency alert systems.” It began the process in December with a notice of inquiry on implementing NG911 and moving public safety communications beyond traditional voice-centric technologies.

AT&T set aside “911” as a national emergency call number in 1968 and since then the service has been upgraded to provide information about the caller's location and can accommodate some cellular and IP communications. The current 911 service includes a basic service that directs calls to the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point depending on the caller’s location, and enhanced service — or E911 — also provides the PSAP with information about the caller’s location and a call-back number.

However, neither of these service levels accommodates the growing use of text, images, video and data communications available on commercial networks. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 live in households without wireline phones and, overall, 27 percent of U.S. households are cell phone-only. The FCC reported that 70 percent of all 911 calls now are made from mobile phones.

Enabling their use could give first responders more information and increase situational awareness.

Any shift to NG911 is unlikely to happen soon or all at once. The FCC is considering a phased migration, with an interim use of Short Message Service texting to begin with, and the later adoption of a full suite of IP-based communications.

The nation’s 6,800 PSAPs are operated by state and local governments, so any upgrades in capabilities are subject to their budgets. This creates several challenges for moving to NG911. The FCC must decide whether local PSAPs should meet a threshold level of capability to receive text, video and data before requiring carriers to provide the NG911 services, or require carriers to provide it up front as an encouragement to PSAPs to adopt it.

Public awareness also is a challenge. With texting and sending of images becoming common, it will be critical to make users aware which PSAPs are capable of receiving these communications. Texting for help could be dangerous if local authorities can only receive voice calls.

An FCC analysis showed that, because of the availability of off-the-shelf equipment supporting IP communications, it could be more cost-effective to upgrade to and operate a NG911 system than to maintain legacy systems. Migrating to a common IP platform also could allow the consolidation of 911 call centers, reducing the total number of them.

According to the study, upgrading all existing call centers to NG911 would cost an estimated $2.7 billion over 10 years. With call-center consolidation, the estimated cost would be about $1.4 billion.

Comments on the FCC proposals can be made electronically through the commission’s Electronic Commend Filing System at http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs2/, or mailed to FCC headquarters at 445 12th St. S.W., room TW-A325, Washington, DC, 20554.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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