Building a Killer ‘Over the Top’ Communications App Without Killing Someone

With the recent announcements about text-to-911 becoming a reality in the US–despite its limited geographic deployment–we can firmly state that Next Generation 911 has evolved to a point where it is now a reality, although it’s very much in its infancy.

Probably the greatest change is that Next Generation Emergency Services IP Networks (ESInets) are now being planned and built in many areas across the US.

This new paradigm in emergency network conductivity will allow multimedia communications, as well as intelligent data to transit these networks, providing an intelligent connection between the networks and devices that originate emergency sessions, and our nations public safety agencies and the telecommunicators who answer nearly 300 million requests for assistance.

One of the next technology migrations that citizens will witness will be “Over the Top” (OTT) communications that utilize IP technology and peering protocols to allow media-rich interaction and collaboration. This is referred to as OTT, as it does not rely on traditional PSTN telecommunications networks; rather it rides on top of them, remaining completely segregated from the underlying carrier.

While this architecture provides a limitless sandbox for developers to try new modes of communications using the latest protocols and technology, such as WebRTC, for example, it does so without the scrutiny or legislative control of federal agencies like the Federal Communications Commission. Whether this is good or bad is certainly a debate that can go on for years. Both sides have merit, however that is not the purpose of this discussion.

Because we grew up with the telecommunications industry being a regulated utility, we generally expect certain levels of service and functionality in our daily lives.

When I “pick up the phone” I expect a dial tone.
When I “dial a telephone number” I expect it to ring.
When I “call 9-1-1” I expect emergency services to know who and where I am.

But what many of us don’t stop to think about is that the reason these three things are expected is because of federal regulations that define the public switched telephone network.

And while I’ll admit that outages still occur, (even in the most critical infrastructure like our 9-1-1 networks) when that does happen, it does so in full view of the public and federal agencies, and usually result in an inquiry to some degree. If changes are required, they’re introduced to prevent similar outages in the future.

This is where the trouble lies. If OTT services become ubiquitous, and transcend into our normal mode of communications on our smart devices and network connected appliances, we may end up “cutting the cord” on today’s PSTN network without even realizing it.

Should this happen, and I personally believe that it will within the next decade, then contacting emergency services, or initiating an emergency services session, will occur “on the network” in an OTT environment that is not currently under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission.

We need to stop and think about that.

If we witness an emergency, or are involved in a disaster, we instinctively pick up our communications devices and summon emergency services by dialing 9-1-1. If that mode of operation is going to continue in the brave new world we are developing and deploying today, then we need to ensure that our government officials and technology leaders take into consideration the importance of our emergency services networks and how citizens connect and communicate with public safety.

This is where things like net neutrality have a significant impact on open communications. Just imagine if an underlying carrier or ISP were to diminish or block a specific communications session, and that particular technology was your connection to emergency services. Not only could you not communicate with your friends and family, you may be blocked from services that can save your life.

The point of the story here is not to take one side over the other. It is to raise awareness in the hope that our legislators and technologists stop and think before making any decisions that might affect life safety communications as the underlying network evolves to a future state.

If you’re going to be in the New York City area on Wednesday, June 11 and would like to attend a special Tech Talk on enterprise public safety, I’ll be speaking to both customers and partners at our 2 Penn Plaza facility.

Joining me will be New York-based 911 subject matter expert Dan Wilson, Hank and DeLana Hunt, who lost their daughter Kari Hunt last December in a tragic hotel murder in Texas, as well as Suffolk County Long Island legislator Rob Trotta, who has introduced legislation in support of Kari’s Law on Long Island.

Customer sessions will be in the morning, with partners attending in the afternoon. Preregistration is required, and seating is limited. If you’d like to attend either session, you can email Dan Wilson for details.

“The Podcast Zone” will once again be set up at the National Emergency Number Association annual conference in Nashville Tennessee, the week of June 15.

We will be joined by our good friend and colleague, Ricardo Martinez from Indigital Systems, and his podcast Within the Trenches, a public safety industry podcast by dispatchers for dispatchers.