Under 911 Standardization, Would Capability Divide Remain? (Industry Perspective)

Despite some commonly held misconceptions, many 911 call centers still lack the ability to determine a cellular caller’s location or receive text, image or video messages.

by Tony Bardo / October 19, 2016

The nation’s 911 system, first established roughly 40 years ago, has not kept pace with telecommunications technology. Despite some commonly held misconceptions, many 911 call centers (public safety answering points or PSAPs) still lack the ability to determine a cellular caller’s location or receive text, image or video messages. Another glaring weakness is lack of network resiliency. To demonstrate that vulnerability, search “911 outage” online and you’ll quickly discover the outdated state of affairs. But now emergency response officials at multiple levels are hard at work trying to fix these issues.

The next-generation 911 (NG911) initiative describes a framework of IP-based networks and services that would drastically improve the amount of data PSAPs could collect and manage, starting by replacing legacy circuit-switched networks with broadband networks. By doing so, PSAPs could take advantage of administrative, cost, operational, geospatial and dispatch data that would revolutionize and streamline their operational capabilities for dispatch and cross-organizational response.

One of the most important recent developments is the Request for Information (RFI) recently issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). This RFI requests input on a Nationally Uniform 911 Data System that would consolidate structured data from a variety of stakeholders and systems. Once the DOT’s vision is implemented, NG911-enabled PSAPs would benefit from precise geolocation, big data analytics and intelligent call grouping. These, and countless other information-rich capabilities, would transform our nation’s emergency response capabilities and significantly enhance the operational efficiency of PSAPs. There also remains an opportunity to highlight existing problems for PSAPs that don’t receive adequate funding for upgrades, usually located in rural, remote and tribal areas. The same capabilities that would benefit NG911-ready PSAPs could be problematic in call transfers between them and the legacy rural or underfunded PSAPs.

As it currently stands, PSAP capabilities can vary widely based on their levels of funding. PSAP funding is drawn primarily from taxes and fees at the state and local levels typically in the form of a small surcharge added onto consumer phone bills, which vary depending on state, county and city. Unfortunately, in some cases, states and counties have diverted revenue from these taxes and fees to pay for other budget shortfalls, leaving their PSAPs without funding for critical upgrades. This landscape creates a divide between PSAPs in more populous regions, which are generally better funded and those with smaller taxpayer bases in rural areas. As a result, urban PSAPs are generally in a much better position to implement network upgrades.

By implementing technology like secondary or tertiary satellite broadband networks that can reroute traffic dropped by the primary network in the event of a service disruption, adequately funded PSAPs are creating new levels of network resiliency. However, this kind of solution is a tough consideration for underfunded rural PSAPs that might only have the budget to keep their legacy systems functional, let alone make major network modernization and resiliency upgrades. This leaves their systems “single-threaded” and vulnerable to service disruptions.

As a result, rural and underfunded PSAPs have understandably made less progress in preparing their networks for the transition to NG911. Because of this, they are in considerably worse shape for being able to utilize the more bandwidth-intensive framework for the standardized data that the DOT is exploring. While states like Massachusetts have found innovative ways of funding the necessary upgrades for all their PSAPs, too many others are finding themselves without the means to evolve.

This problem is only going to grow as the DOT’s plan for standardized data is put into effect. According to the RFI, the department calls for “a nationally uniform 911 data system, containing uniform data elements for all computer aided dispatch (CAD) data, data associated with the operation of local and state 911 systems, and Extensible Markup Language (XML) schema (or technical equivalent) that would enable the collection, analysis and sharing of standardized administrative data, operational data, cost data and all CAD data received, collected, processed and transmitted during 911 calls.” That is a considerable sum of data, and it is simply too much for PSAPs that rely on the limited capability provided by legacy networks. This means investments in critical technology like satellite broadband for path diversity and network resiliency will become even less likely to be implemented in the near future.

That is why, as the DOT looks to do its part in creating a uniform data structure for PSAPs to use around the country, Congress also needs to do its part. Its priorities should be:

  1. To establish a level playing field for all PSAPs with equal access to federal funding for upgrading outdated 911 networks;
  2. Work with trade associations like the National Emergency Number Association and Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials to create a national standards and best practices plan; and
  3. Incentivize the adoption of technologies like satellite broadband that enhance network reliability and availability to mitigate 911 outages.

Government organizations like the FCC and DOT, along with private organizations like the National Emergency Number Association, have made NG911 a priority and are doing everything in their power to make it a reality. And certain congressional representatives, including Rep. Anna Eshoo, Rep. Norma Torres and Sen. Chuck Schumer have started exploration at the legislative level. The rest of Congress needs to build upon the progress that these people and organizations have made and do its part in ensuring that the next generation of 911 networks encompasses all PSAPs, regardless of their location.

Tony Bardo is the assistant vice president of Government Services at Hughes.