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Vendor's Corner: NENA i3: Something Less Than the Holy Grail of NG9-1-1
Author: Stephen Meer, ENP, Intrado
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
There is one thing everyone in the public safety community agrees on: the time to overhaul the Enhanced 9-1-1 infrastructure is overdue. The current voice architecture was conceived in 1968 by borrowing various existing technologies that serviced other areas of telephony with the underlying enhanced data environment following about five years later. Nothing new or revolutionary was invented then and, unfortunately, almost nothing new or revolutionary has been invented since, apart from modifications to accommodate mobility. The key underpinnings of today’s 9-1-1 framework are still based on that same wireline, analog, circuit-switched technology. The fact of the matter is 9-1-1 has failed to evolve with modern, digital telecommunications, and that gap is quickly turning into a chasm that broadens every day. To adequately deal with this we must get serious about implementing the additional functionality and benefits of next-generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1). That is the part we agree on, but exactly how to achieve this is a matter of increasing debate.
An Un-detailed Definition
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has put considerable effort into creating a theoretical framework for an NG9-1-1 system they call i3. NENA’s i3 document outlines their idea of a completed, fully integrated IP-based network of networks shared by all emergency agencies. This work has been monumental and is viewed by many industry stakeholders as the comprehensive definition of next-generation 9-1-1. The document offers many good ideas; however, we need to be clear about what i3 is and what i3 is not.
In the most basic terms, the i3 document is a partial set of functional interface specifications for NENA’s proposed next-generation solution. It is not NG9-1-1; and it is by no means the only document we need to consider to successfully define and reach NG9-1-1. Taken in proper context, the current version i3 document is a piece of the next-generation definition. It is one of a plethora of documents currently being written by many organizations that need to be utilized collectively to effectively migrate our aging 9-1-1 system to a modern, digital architecture that can and will evolve with our broad range of public communications systems.
The i3 proposal presents the most sweeping changes the 9-1-1 industry has ever seen, dwarfing the work done to incorporate wireless Phase I and Phase II functionality. Yet, as written, i3 presumes and relies on a number of technical, operational, and regulatory dependencies that are not clearly identified or defined. Such gaping holes render the proposed architecture impractical and impossible to effectively deploy or operate. For example, the entire 252-page document includes only three lines and three words dealing with the encoding and decoding of voice in the system, and those words fail to establish a clearly delineated voice interface.
It is common for standards documents to avoid the details of implementation, and i3 is no exception. However, i3’s lack of guidance in this area creates a house of cards; a domino effect of missing information relative to interfaces, data flows, operational requirements, costs, and risks that is essential to the development of the defined system. This silence, coupled with the poorly defined interfaces that are included in the document, will significantly hinder the development of necessary network elements. As it stands now, the document is open to broad interpretation by manufacturers and system operators which will inevitably lead to incompatible components, lack of flexibility, and overwhelming costs. In short, i3 will deliver an unworkable system that will fail to deliver on its requirements or its promises.
From PSAP managers to state legislators to federal policy-makers, a shocking number of emergency services decision-makers are being led to believe the proposed i3 technical requirements outline everything needed for a comprehensive next-generation framework. Promises are being made up the 9-1-1 food chain regarding what i3 can deliver, but the unsuspecting public, as well as the emergency services community, is going to be disappointed.
The wording of the document is often vague and encourages readers to expect services that are still out of reach. Many PSAP operators erroneously expect to implement an i3 system and then instantly and easily have access to functionality such as text capabilities and video sharing. However, the document fails to address the fact that carriers and other providers need to deliver capabilities and operational methods that allow for this functionality—something they cannot yet do—and, as of today, i3 has not defined these requirements to a level of usability.
Disregard for the Wireless World
The foundation of i3 is unfortunately based on the idea that dramatic changes in telecommunications will result in a purely Internet-based communications network. This is unrealistic as it creates a dramatic disconnect between the wireless world where the majority of 9-1-1 calls are initiated and the 9-1-1 system designed to receive and process these calls.
In reality, it will be the wireless community that spearheads the delivery of text, pictures, and video from the public to the PSAP. Yet, the designers of i3 made no attempt to align the proposed system with the wireless work already underway to deliver these services outside of 9-1-1. In response to this, wireless carriers have banded together to develop their own set of standards for 9-1-1 operability, which has the imminent possibility of resulting in a new and widening chasm between the proposed i3 network and the wireless community. If our next-generation 9-1-1 framework does not embrace the wireless world, then we will simply be replacing one outdated system with another and immediately start down a disconnected path from general telephony, again.
The Work is Not Complete
Next-generation 9-1-1 is necessary. Our current analog framework is simply not adequate for the modern digital age. However, i3 is not an end-to-end proposal, and we cannot risk moving forward without fully understanding the implications of what we are doing. The 9-1-1 industry as a whole needs to recognize that NENA’s i3 document is incomplete and far from the sole definition of next-generation 9-1-1. Next-generation 9-1-1 will be dramatically disruptive to the historical technology, operation oversight, business, regulation, costs and funding of emergency telephony. Many of these disruptions are suggested directly by the construct of i3, and many more are silently implied. Blindly embracing the concepts of i3 without fully understanding and embracing the related impacts is fraught with peril and is reckless. More work is needed to resolve and document the details necessary to make the i3 proposal usable to manufacturers and system operators and to create an NG9-1-1 network that is beneficial to the public.
Vendor’s Corner is a guest column about product and vendor issues and solutions. Stephen Meer is a co-founder and CTO of Intrado, a leading provider of 9-1-1 operations support systems services for incumbent local exchange carriers, competitive local exchange carriers and wireless carriers. See www.intrado.com