Already widely adopted by businesses, IP telephony – or “VoIP” – is well on its way to becoming the predominant technology protocol for voice communications – a trend that has important consequences for the rapidly evolving E911 market, an industry veteran told TMCnet during an interview.
Though TDM and circuit-switched telephony will be around for a while, most new build-outs by carriers and enterprises include VoIP-based voice systems, according to Bill Mertka, vice president of product management for RedSky (News - Alert) Technologies, Inc. – a Chicago-based E911 solutions provider.
Data from industry analysts supports Mertka’s observation. As VoIP insiders predicted, the down economy has more and more companies looking to leverage technology to cut costs – including in communications. Led by small offices, home offices and small businesses, the rate of VoIP adoption in the enterprise segment is growing, and CIOs nationally rank migration to VoIP high among project priorities, along with security and SaaS (News - Alert) (News - Alert).
Mertka, as a professional in the E911 area, has a unique view of the trend.
As he tells us in an interview (printed in full below), Mertka is involved in several efforts overseen by the National Emergency Number Association, or “NENA.” The professional association gathers E911 experts and others to look at how the nation’s emergency network infrastructure – which has struggled at times to handle VoIP calls – will leverage facilities such as VPCs, or “VoIP Positioning Centers,” and “Emergency Services Gateway (News - Alert) ( News - Alert)” providers help see that IP-based calls are placed and answered by traditional emergency services providers.
It’s a critically important task, and – as Mertka tells us – where NENA’s work is headed is toward so-called next-generation 911, or “NG9-1-1” capability. That’s where devices of all types will kickstart voice calls and IP-based communications that are fed to an emergency services infrastructure.
Part of what’s so challenging about seeing the infrastructure upgrades through, from E911’s point of view, is moving toward NG9-1-1 ultimately will lead to higher capabilities (providing more data), but that the so-called “public safety answering points,” or PSAPs, may need extra funding from the government in order to man the systems locally. How to build, share and fund NG9-1-1 are among the major challenges right now, Mertka tells us.
Particularly interesting to us was Mertka’s description of how RedSky’s E911 Anywhere solution is designed to meet the needs of organizations now adding VoIP systems.
Our exchange follows.
TMCnet: We understand that you sit on a committee with the National Emergency Number Association One of NENA’s major tasks at the moment is overseeing the development of standards and procedures for VoIP enhanced 9-1-1 (E911) service. In particular, since VoIP phones are Internet-based and highly mobile, it can become a challenge to determine the location of a person placing a 911 call. NENA is at the forefront of a three-phased project to address those concerns. Could you give us a status update of NENA’s work in this regard?
Bill Mertka: I represent RedSky (News - Alert) on several different committees, including the Steering Committee for NENA’s NG9-1-1 – that’s “next-generation 911” – Industry Collaboration Events, the NG Messaging Work Group, the Femtocell (News - Alert) (News - Alert) Work Group, occasionally the VoIP Long Term Definition – that’s “LTD,” or “i-3” – Work Group, the NG Business Rules/Database Work Group, the VoIP Location Work Group, and the recently wound up MLTS Work Group.
The three phase project you refer to – that is, i1/i2/i3 – is not a project, but rather a way of describing how specifically VoIP calls would be handled by an emergency network. i1 represented today’s infrastructure, that largely can’t handle VoIP calls in the native 9-1-1 infrastructure. i2, is more or less an interim approach where VoIP Positioning Centers and Emergency Services Gateway providers supply the infrastructure needed for someone to place an IP-based call and have it answered by a traditional emergency service network/PSAP. i3 is the end-goal – that is, full NG9-1-1 capability – where devices of all types initiate IP-based “sessions” of all types, not just voice calls, which are handled by an IP-based emergency services infrastructure.
Regarding status, the i2 specifications have been done since late 2005, and the so-called Stage 1 (Requirements) and Stage 2 (Functional and Interface Standards) for i3 are done, and the final detailed Stage 3 document is still in work. This should be completed some time this year and NENA is hoping to couple standards completion, along with the ICE events and a potential end-to-end pilot that will take place in 2009-2010, to allow the industry to feel comfortable about rolling out true, fully standards-compliant NG91-1 systems in 2011. In the meantime, we’re already seeing some “pre-standard” NG9-1-1 systems starting to emerge from vendor labs now, including from RedSky.
TMCnet: It’s our understanding that during i-2, VoIP services basically use the traditional public telephone networks location database for the location that is identified with a particular telephone number. In other words, the i-2 VoIP environment assumes the use of emergency services numbers for the routing of VoIP calls. How is this effort expected to improve communications and secure the proper routing of all VoIP E911 calls?
BM: The NENA i2 architecture for VoIP calls takes advantage of technology developed to support Wireless 9-1-1 and adapts it to support static and nomadic VoIP emergency calls.
As VoIP allows traditional telephone numbers to be used from areas other than the original geographic area corresponding to the NPA (News - Alert) (News - Alert)-NXX – that is, the first 6 digits of a 10-digit telephone number, the i2 specification delineates the use of numbers known as “Emergency Service Query Keys,” analogous to the Emergency Service Routing Key” used in wireless 9-1-1, which is what is known as a “pseudo ANI” or pANI number.
This is a calling party identifier, geographically relevant to the selective router (traditional phone switch that routes 9-1-1 calls to PSAPs) and PSAP the caller is trying to reach, that allows for correct call routing. When used by the PSAP call-taking equipment to “bid” for caller Automatic Location Identification, information is sent using a technology called “ALI Steering” from the traditional ALI database used by the PSAP to a centralized “Dynamic ALI” database maintained by a VPC. The VPC stores the caller’s real callback number and real location, which has been placed there by E911 solutions such as those marketed by RedSky. By utilizing call models and equipment already in place from the wireless 9-1-1 build-out, NENA i2-based systems insure proper routing of VoIP 9-1-1 calls.
TMCnet: Is there any doubt in your mind that VoIP will become the predominant technology used in the telecom industry?
BM: VoIP is already well on its way to becoming the dominant technology for voice calls. While it is important to note that traditional TDM/circuit switched telephony will be around for a long time, most new build-outs by both carriers and enterprises for new voice systems are VoIP-based and most, if not all, current technology innovation in voice technology is in the VoIP arena. The NENA NG9-1-1 vision accepts the reality of the dominance of IP-based communications, not just voice, and plans to encourage the upgrade of the nation’s 9-1-1 infrastructure accordingly.
TMCnet: Talk to us about how RedSky’s E911 Anywhere solution fits into this picture. Does E911 Anywhere hold any distinct advantages as regards the so-called i-2 “VPC,” or “VoIP Positioning Center” solutions?
BM: RedSky’s E911 Anywhere solution is a response to the needs of those enterprises and other organizations that are adding VoIP systems and want a reliable, centralized national 9-1-1 service that eliminates the need to deal with multiple 9-1-1 service providers when providing for distributed employee populations’ 9-1-1 calling needs.
It can accommodate manual or automatic location update as devices move around on an enterprise campus or other location, and can even accommodate those systems that cannot or do not send VoIP/SIP-based voice traffic from the premise, by also incorporating a traditional PSTN call capability (meaning users can forward 9-1-1 calls to the service over the PSTN, rather than IP/SIP, if that is easier for them). E911 Anywhere is i2 compliant and flexible and powerful enough to accommodate future full NG9-1-1 compliant systems. Future customers of E911 Anywhere in the NG9-1-1 “era” will include not only enterprises, RedSky’s traditional customer base, but likely also PSAPs and service providers of either Internet Access or Voice services.
TMCnet: Finally, where we’re headed in all this is for VoIP service providers to have a full IP interconnection with PSAPs, so they provide more valuable information than the legacy 911 system. What is NENA’s timetable for the completion of that project? What are the biggest obstacles to achieving long-term – or “NG9-1-1” – solutions to support location-based routing of VoIP E911 calls to PSAPs?
BM: The biggest obstacle to the realization of NG91-1 is clearly the funding obstacle. The technical issues are miniscule compared to funding and political concerns. Who will pay for NG9-1-1 upgrades for the nation’s 20-plus emergency services providers and more than 6,000 PSAPs remains a big issue.
We are getting closer every day to solving the technical issues of NG9-1-1, but without either a clear mandate at the federal level forcing an upgrade or clear forward-thinking, policy-making and funding activity at the state and local level, the vision of NG9-1-1 may take a very long time to realize in implementation.
PSAPs and 9-1-1 service are inherently local services, and the direction of NG9-1-1 from a technical standpoint is toward consolidation, resource-sharing, and potentially the replacement of “butts in seats” with technology. These are always contentious issues where “having your own PSAP” is something desired by most local jurisdictions. Conversely, the workload of the PSAP may be so much higher with all the new capabilities that governments won’t be able to afford the extra resources needed to staff them, which may dissuade them from moving in this direction. These are just a few reasons why deciding how to build, share, and pay for NG9-1-1 are by far the biggest obstacles to NG9-1-1 implementation.
Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi