Standard approved for VOIP 911 calls

A major standard enabling voice-over-IP telecommunications providers to deliver enhanced 911 (E911) service has been approved by a non-profit organization promoting implementation of the three-digit emergency phone number system across the nation.

The board of directors of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) earlier this week approved the Interim VOIP Architecture for Enhanced 911 Services (i2) standard. The approval is considered the first step of a major system redesign around IP.

The standard, which was published Dec. 6, is a transitional measure that allows VOIP calls to be routed via existing legacy systems to 911 call centers known as public safety answering points (PSAPs).

Roger Hixson, NENA’s technical issues director, said numerous stakeholders from industry, the public safety community and others have participated in developing i2 since the initiative began more than two years ago. While the standard is not mandatory, NENA officials said major VOIP providers have been implementing some of its elements in the past six months.

“A number of major providers were involved in the committee work and probably had a pretty good picture of what the solution was going to include and needs going to be,” Hixson said. “So to a large degree those vendors used this as a major resource point.”

Hixson said there are hundreds of VOIP providers who use private IP networks or the public Internet to route calls. Many of the private IP network providers have been offering E911 for some time because they have been providing service to a fixed type of subscriber, he said.

However, Internet-based VOIP providers have a tougher time because the service is largely nomadic, which means subscribers can make telephone calls from a fixed location or other locations through the Internet, he said. Those are the providers that really need the i2 approach, Hixson added.

Patrick Halley, NENA’s government affairs director, said the organization is continuing to work on developing the i3, or next-generation standard, through which calls from VOIP phones will be routed over an IP system to PSAPs.

“We can’t stress enough the importance of implementing 911 in a coordinated and standardized approach,” he said.

Hixson said i2 is preliminary to the next-generation standard, which is likely to be published in the first quarter of 2006.

VOIP represents a significant improvement among other technologies, he said.

“Wireless was sort of like a [propeller-powered] plane in terms of speed,” he said. “VOIP is like an SR-71 Blackbird [jet]. It really moves along at a much faster cycle in terms of service and implementation.”

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