E911 Talk Episode 208: Why Location Remains a Pesky Problem for Next-Gen 911

One of the biggest problems today with 911 is determining the originating endpoint’s location. Obviously, if the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) doesn’t understand where you are, the PSTN can’t route your call to the proper 911 center, or Public Safety Answer Position (PSAP). Even if your call is routed properly, without the PSAP knowing your location, it’s impossible to send help to where you are.

In the days of legacy communications, we lived in a world that consisted of fixed, hardwired telephone devices. These were attached to the wall and every one of those devices typically had a unique telephone number assigned to it.

The identity of the caller was unknown until the mid- to late 80s, where several telephone providers added Custom Local Area Signaling Services (CLASS), which included capabilities like Caller ID (CLID), as well as other features such as *69, marketed under the TouchStar™ brand of services.

Prior to this, communications capabilities within the police department were no different than the capabilities afforded to any business telephone customer.

Unfortunately, that included no CLID or Automatic Number Identification (ANI) information. If the phone rang, you had no clue who was calling. The telephone has been upgraded to include this information, however it’s still based on the telephone company’s Service Order Information (SOI) records.

The location information that’s made available to a PSAP is simply a query made to the database with the telephone number used as the query key.

It’s at this point where many technologists become confused.

While it is true that we start delivering location information to the PSAP, the information being delivered is based on a telephone number query, and more importantly, pre-provisioned information existing in a static database.

This is where the old adage comes into play: “Garbage in, garbage out.” While it is true that we’re providing location information to the PSAP, it doesn’t mean that the information being provided is correct, or is from the originating device itself. Based on the lack of understanding of this basic premise, confusion continues to abound in the industry.

The problem is not getting or determining the explicit location of a device.

Many applications have proven time and time again that there are several processes where this information can be collected, promulgated, and then presented to interested parties in various graphical interfaces.

The problem is really twofold. First is the challenge of getting the information from the originating endpoint or network to public safety. The only communication path available today is an analog-based, voice-only network incapable of delivering anything outside of in-band audio.

This is very much akin to having a fax machine before the telephone network existed. Great photocopier! But I have no way of connecting this magical box to another magical box that can receive the information.

The second problem is more rudimentary. I have my first magical box, and I have a network to connect to. But I am the only owner of this magical box. Without a second one in existence, I have no one to send the information to.

This is where I get very skeptical on many applications and “bold new ideas.”

While they have the originating magical box, they are missing not one but both of the previously mentioned requirements.

Confusing perhaps are press releases published on major news sites, like this one. Despite the very clear warning on the bottom of the webpage that “The Wall Street Journal news department was not involved in the creation of this content,” in other words, it’s a paid advertisement.

The problem here is that despite the seemingly wonderful technology that companies like Spirent have developed, rules of physics and the lack of intelligent physical connectivity will preclude this capability from ever being a reality. While this certainly is a cry for the need of Next Generation Emergency Services, it is not going to accelerate the deployment of those services one iota.

All too often, industry hype is just that. All hype, and no substantive technology behind it. While it never hurts to dream, when those dreams litter the roadway with hurdles the rest need to leap over, it’s not doing anyone any good.

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