E911: Responding to VoIP’s Emergency

In the wake of the FCC decision to require VoIP service providers to offer E911 services, VoIP service providers have been facing an emergency themselves - one that will require fast response from the industry.

The FCC gave VoIP providers 120 days - until October - to come up with a system that will deliver both the caller location and call-back number to public safety answering points (PSAPs), a technological challenge, given that IP networks often do not know the physical location of the user and that users can move an IP phone to any location on the Internet worldwide.

Given the clock is ticking, a host of service providers, vendors and researchers are chiming in with potential solutions to the problem the FCC has created. These range from providers of outsourced 911 services, to vendors adding 911 capability to products to an proposal from a research group working with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

The proposal by researchers working with NENA is significant, in that it is one of the only solutions to the E911 issue that uses existing IP networking technologies and does not provide a windfall for a service provider or a vendor. The system, demonstrated at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in late May, was developed by researchers from Texas A&M University, Columbia University and the University of Virginia and presented by Henning Schulzrinne, professor in the department of computer science at Columbia University, and one of the principal developers of the SIP protocol.

The system does not use just one database or source of location information, but accommodates multiple sources that are already available, from input by the customer to DNS records or serviceprovider records to narrow down the location of the caller. Even highly accurate GPS data, or data from Bluetooth beacons and Wi-Fi triangulation, if available, can be thrown into the mix as the system works to pinpoint the caller.

The location data generated by the system works with software by other vendors, such as MapInfo Corp. and GeoComm, to display locations visually.

Another feature of the system is that it could work worldwide with multiple emergency services around the world, a necessity for the future as VoIP users will increasingly take their phones with them around the world, particularly as Wi-Fi phones become more commonplace.

Schulzrinne says, “An important consideration is to make sure that we facilitate as much as possible a common system, not just U.S.-based, but as much as possible international, because of the nature of the Internet.” Any user who is traveling “can easily buy a SIP phone in France, for example, and it will work fine, and it needs to work for 911 as well,” he says.


Service providers, such as Intrado Inc., HBF Group Inc. and Telecommunication Systems Inc. have launched new services in recent months that provide outsourced E911 for mobile and VoIP service providers, who have many of the same issues because both of the services can move.

One new offering, Intrado’s Peering Service, provides a way for VoIP calls to access E911. It works with the company’s existing V911 service for mobile providers, which determines location and provides routing information to get a call to the correct PSAP.

Intrado’s Marcus Andronici

This system establishes a record for each phone number in the Master Street Address Guide (MSAG), a database that includes automatic location identification and automatic telephone number identification data, plus detailed latitude and longitude data. When a call comes in from a phone number, that database is queried for the street location and the latitude and longitude, both of which are displayed on the screens at the PSAP. The PSAP uses that data to choose the emergency unit that will respond to the call. MSAG “is the baseline for 911,” says Marcus Andronici, product manager of VoIP solutions at Intrado.

The other piece of that service is to get VoIP calls into the TDM 911 system, which is the Peering Service. Intrado plans to offer a managed-gateway package to ILECs. The gateways would be placed at key points on a service provider’s network that would give access to multiple PSAPs (It would be highly difficult to put a gateway at each of the nearly 8,000 PSAPs in the United States). Intrado could either sell the managed gateway to ILECs as a service or could install gateways itself and offer a neutral access service to all VoIP providers. (One of the uncertainties of the FCC order is whether ILECs are required to give VoIP service providers access to their networks.)

Another approach to outsourced 911 is offered by HBF. A call is routed to the PSAP by HBF using its location information and the selective routers of the E911 system. However, PSAP workers dont get a screen pop of location information and call-back number. The onus is on the PSAP to access HBF’s Web site to find the location of a caller from the HBF database. The database contains a list of calls sent to each PSAP with a time stamp and the phone number. The phone number is used to look up the location information on the Web site.

However, many PSAPs do not have access to the Internet, and, says Rob Smith, director of sales at HBF, it is not clear if the system would be acceptable to the FCC under the most recent regulation. Still it is used by a number of service providers, including Volo Communications Inc., a CLEC and VoIP service provider.

HBF will also introduce a peering type of service in the near future, says Smith. In addition, the company is in talks with OnStar Corp., the automotive emergency service, which also uses a Web site for PSAPs to look up data. Smith says, “We have been working with them to integrate our products.”

Another outsourcer, Telecommunication Systems Inc., a leading provider of 911 services for mobile operators, has announced it will develop a 911 system for VoIP operators.

However, the task for all the outsourced 911 providers in meeting the FCC requirements may be a daunting one, no matter what kind of service they offer. “No one has a fully compliant system,” says Smith. “We have been in this business 20 years, and no one can do it in 120 days.”


One popular option for VoIP service providers is to work with a CLEC, notably Level 3 Communications Inc., which already provides termination services for a number of VoIP service providers. This is the system used by Packet8, the consumer service of 8×8 Inc. Level 3 already has links to the E911 services in the 44 states where it is a registered CLEC. Most VoIP providers have few subscribers in other locations, which tend to be sparsely populated regions. Also many of those areas, such as large stretches of western Texas, do not have E911 services implemented.

Pac-West Telecom Inc., a wholesale and retail provider of traditional and VoIP services in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington, says it “has been providing E911 to our traditional PSTN customers since 1996, and we have integrated this capability into our VoiceSource solution to offer this same capability to VoIP providers.”

In the wake of the FCC decision, several vendors also issued press statements trumpeting various kinds of E911 capabilities in their products.

General Bandwidth says its G6 Universal media gateway “interoperates with leading softswitches using standardsbased interfaces and scales easily to meet the needs of any distributed softswitch trunking deployments, including support for CALEA, E911 and security.”

Qovia Inc., a provider of management products for enterprise VoIP, offers its Location Gateway Server, a component of its VoIP Monitoring and Management System. The company says the product can provide E911 client location within VoIP networks. The Location Gateway Server enables E911 data to be gathered and forwarded to PSAP databases.

Sonus Networks Inc., a leading provider of softswitches and media gateways, says its GSX9000 Open Services Switch and the Insignus Softswitch support the Centralized Automatic Message Accounting signaling standard, as well as ISDN and SS7, and that support of this signaling standard allows service providers to interconnect with PSAPs around the country.

8×8 Inc. www.8×
Columbia University
General Bandwidth
HBF Group Inc.
Intrado Inc.
Level 3 Communications Inc.
MapInfo Corp.
National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
OnStar Corp.
Pac-West Telecom Inc.
Qovia Inc.
Sonus Networks Inc.
Telecommunication Systems Inc.
Texas A&M University
University of Virginia
Verizon Communications Inc.
Volo Communications Inc.
Vonage Holdings Corp.

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