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Will Congress Set the Tone for NG9-1-1?
Author: Tony Bardo, Asst. VP, Govt. Solutions, Hughes
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
The term “emergency” covers a wide variety of crisis situations, encompassing highly localized incidents such as a car crash up to national disasters like Superstorm Sandy. Though emergencies may differ in scale, at the heart of any response to an emergency are the 9-1-1 dispatchers located across more than 7,000 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) nationwide. Unfortunately, too many PSAPs that are responsible for receiving and responding to 9-1-1 calls currently lack the proper funding to upgrade their decades-old legacy circuit-switched network systems to “Next-Generation 9-1-1” (NG9-1-1) systems. New NG9-1-1 systems would arm 9-1-1 operators with new actionable data to coordinate better and faster responses to emergencies.
As PSAPs nationwide gradually pilot and implement NG9-1-1 systems, their increased bandwidth will enable already-popularized commercial technologies. These technologies include text and video communications, pooling callers by the scene of the same emergency as well as providing more accurate cellular caller location. Migrating to networks that can handle the next-generation information traffic means that PSAPs also need to account for proper operational continuity. As the network grows more complex, more potential vulnerabilities within the network are exposed that could jeopardize citizens’ ability to contact emergency services. To increase overall network availability and resiliency, PSAPs need to eliminate potential points of failure by incorporating a best practice known as network path diversity. Path diversity requires implementing backup communication links to typically primary terrestrial connections - cable, fiber or 3G/4G LTE wireless - employing true alternate means, namely satellite technology.
The Case for Nationally Coordinated Standards
Today there is a divide among PSAPs between the “have’s” and “have not’s.” PSAP funding, aside from some federal grants, comes primarily from state and local taxes and surcharges. This has led to a fragmented system with no central funding structure leaving some PSAPs better funded and equipped than others. Despite the lack of dedicated federal funding, some states, like Massachusetts and localities in states like Texas, are finding ways to fund the necessary upgrades to their 9-1-1 systems. Many others, unfortunately, are standing by waiting for new or increased funding at the state or federal levels to make their critical upgrades.
Ensuring proper distribution of resources between economically and geographically diverse PSAPs will require multiple levels of coordination. For this reason, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has already begun calling for increased Congressional leadership in developing a national set of standards for NG9-1-1 adoption. The FCC has also formed the Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture to assist in creating standards and best practices. Building on the sizable work the FCC has already done, Congress should work to deliver dedicated funding and direction to help states, counties and localities across the country conform to a common architecture and proven set of best practices.
PSAP Architecture Upgrades at a Glance
Under the legacy E-9-1-1 architecture, when a caller calls 9-1-1, their call is routed from their phone to a PSAP via a Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) router. As such, the single threaded connection between the PSTN and PSAP represents an existing risk that the NG9-1-1 architecture would eliminate by recommending a path diverse back-up connection among the emerging best practices.
Under the NG9-1-1 architecture, incoming call data will feed into the Core Services Cloud, which will replace the PSTN as the connecting point between callers and their local PSAP. This solution enables voice, media, or data to be sent from the caller to the primary PSAP. However, if the primary network path for the call is disrupted or damaged during (or before) this connection, call quality is likely to degrade substantially or disconnect altogether. For this reason, PSAPs need to prioritize not just redundancy, but resiliency in their upgrades. This resiliency can be accomplished through technology-diverse alternate network paths that allow for communications to be automatically rerouted over a backup path in case of a disruption in the primary path. This prevents a major potential point of failure liability. It happens too often when PSAPs mistake concepts like carrier diversity or path redundancy for true path diversity, which is fundamental for continuity of operations. In fact, all anyone has to do is run an online search of “9-1-1 outage” to realize the magnitude of this liability.
Primary vs. Secondary PSAPs
In describing the 9-1-1 call process, it is also important to note the difference between primary and secondary PSAPs. According to the FCC, “a primary PSAP is defined as a PSAP to which 9-1-1 calls are routed directly from the 9-1-1 Control Office... A secondary PSAP is defined as a PSAP to which 9-1-1 calls are transferred from a primary PSAP.” Primary PSAPs are responsible for first collecting information and need from the caller, and when necessary providing dispatchers at secondary PSAPs with that information before transferring the call.
The line of communication between primary and secondary PSAPs may expose potential liabilities in instances where disparity exists between a larger primary PSAP and a smaller secondary PSAP. NG9-1-1 implementation can be more challenging for smaller PSAPs, which tend to be more financially limited. A problem could arise when trying to transfer a caller and their information from an NG9-1-1 enabled Primary PSAP to a Secondary PSAP with a legacy system, where operators would not be able to capitalize on caller data from the latest technology. Another risk to consider is if the primary PSAP was funded to implement network path diversity and the secondary PSAP was not. If the wireline from the Primary to the Secondary PSAP was damaged in an accident, disaster or attack, the call transfer attempt would fail and the caller would likely become disconnected.
It has become abundantly clear that a well-orchestrated and centrally funded approach to upgrading all of the nation’s PSAPs is needed.
The Time for NG911 is Now
As the situation stands now, PSAP network technology around much of the country is widely outdated and needs to be modernized. This is not a recent revelation, and PSAPs in every state are making progress toward adopting Next-Generation 9-1-1.
The Next-Generation IP-based network will be essential for PSAPs to not only improve emergency response, but for PSAPs to remain operational, even in the face of disaster situations. However, it is vital that PSAPs have dedicated federal funds and a common roadmap that outlines minimum standards for critical features like continuity of operations and high availability networking.
Given that the FCC has done everything within their authority to push wide scale NG9-1-1 adoption, responsibility now falls to Congress, who should move quickly to fund and implement the critical upgrades nationwide.
Tony Bardo has 29 years of experience with strategic communication technologies that serve the complex needs of government. Since joining Hughes Network Systems in January 2006, Bardo has served as assistant vice president of Government Solutions, where he is focused on providing Hughes satellite broadband applications solutions to Federal, State, and Local governments. Bardo also recently served as Chair of the Networks and Telecommunications Shared Interest Group (SIG) for the Industry Advisory Council, an advisory body to the American Council for Technology (ACT).