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The network agnostic advantage in NG 9-1-1 call processing

Written by Michael Rosen

Overview

The emergency services and public safety communities are moving boldly into the next generation, and you know you should be moving too… but how do you get started?
The NG9-1-1 roadmap tends to focus on the long-term vision of fully converged ubiquitous voice and data services, but today’s public safety answering point (PSAP) director faces the more immediate need to focus on practical step-by-step solutions that bridge the gap between current analog, TDM, hybrid and IP solutions, and the complete realization of what is possible down the road. Vendors have staked out competing approaches to progress in the absence of fully adopted national standards, and various implementations have emerged “in the wild” as a result. This is consistent with historical patterns, however, as the industry has previously survived multiple successive technology migrations with an overall track record of providing successful public safety continuity. Your best bet in this uncertain environment is to be informed so you can know your options and move forward with confidence.

Information Deluge Ahead

The industry’s evolutionary plan includes multimedia real-time data delivery involving multiple-stream, multiple-destination, multiple-source information. That vision will likely be delivered via a GIS-centric representation of events presented with automatic location context, combined with powerful two-way interactive field data exchange involving first responders, human and vehicle location, surveillance video, sensor arrays, biometrics, and other non-traditional data forms and devices. Broadband service improvements, including increasingly ever-present Wi-Fi, Wi-Max and 4G wireless broadband provide new avenues of “always on” communications that threaten to overwhelm public safety operations if allowed to proliferate unchecked and stream into the PSAP unfiltered. Simply put, failure to plan could drown you in data. It is essential to determine well ahead of time how to handle dramatically increased information flows while avoiding overload not only of your physical network resources, but also of your human telecommunicators as multiple networks deliver real-time data feeds into the call center for the first time.

Choose to be Network Agnostic

In preparing for the long-term march to the NENA i3 NG9-1-1 realization, there are concrete steps you can take right now that will allow you to add value to your systems and processes today while helping to ensure forward compatibility and ease of transition to future next generation networks, systems and services. Cost-effective, proactive ways of achieving this seamless migration path include supporting transitional protocols fielded in advance of the official i3 standard, leveraging installed systems by seeking clean handoffs between traditional systems and advanced IP networks, and avoiding proprietary solutions at all costs. By embracing open systems interoperability, you will preserve maximum flexibility and choice down the road, and smooth your long-term evolutionary pathway.

To a large extent, operations within the PSAP will remain largely unchanged in the next generation—NG9-1-1 primarily involves new inputs and outputs, along with increased interoperability and flexibility.

More Than One Cloud

If the concept of “cloud computing” confounds you, try this: There will be more than one cloud! “Networks of networks” will emerge like a series of linked chains proliferating for reasons grounded both in the realities of our industry specifically—funding availability, incompatible tariff structures, policy differences, and timing—as well as due to the state of technology evolution and adoption generally.

While elusive to grasp, the cloud serves two important functions: it provides us something to connect to and also the means to connect together, ultimately creating an increasingly valuable public safety network, which becomes worth far more than the sum of its individual component parts.

Connections Proliferate

Multiple connection methods will be needed to make all of those heterogeneous networks accessible. It is likely that many PSAPs will soon find the need—either organically on their own or by authoritative mandate—to connect to a statewide network, a regional network, a metropolitan area network, and/or a private safety network (such as a university, power plant, transportation hub or military facility). Whether a single all-purpose communication method will eventually emerge to support all varieties of network types over the long term, the prudent near- and mid-term approach is to employ a flexible connection strategy to connect to the greatest number of entities within the multiplicity of existing and expected networks set to evolve under NG9-1-1.

Your service provider may not necessarily provide this “connective tissue” infrastructure for you. It is more likely that a combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives will drive creation of value-adding collaborative networks and services. NG’s early years will see a mix of organic and planned capabilities being added at different times, and new partners continuously seeking to join. Powerful “network effects” take hold as the number of participants increases, each receiving greater value back from the network than they put in (i.e., eBay, Facebook). Network agnostic support is essential under this model.

Industry Evolution

Next Generation 9-1-1 is simply the next logical evolution along the relentless path of innovation that has been unfolding since the first 9-1-1 call was placed back in 1968. The industry has since seen Basic 9-1-1 and the debut of Automatic Number Identification (ANI), progressed to Enhanced 9-1-1 bringing the advent of Computer-Telephony Integration (CTI) with text-based Automatic Location Identification (ALI), then Wireless Phase I (cell tower and radius) and Phase II (estimated caller location with confidence value), and Mapped ALI plotted with x/y coordinates automatically retransmitted for callers in motion. The pace of change during the past 40 years has truly been impressive. Innovation continues today, but at an even quicker pace than we have seen up to now. i3 will bring advanced IP-based location services and two-way rich multimedia broadband communication delivering real-time data from any location on a new generation of increasingly powerful wireless computing devices.

A Revolution in Routing

Key to the advanced location-based information services is the role played by next-generation IP selective routers. An open, network agnostic approach is crucial to ensuring integration with these powerful game-changing information enablers. To understand the magnitude of the transition, traditional tandem TDM routers use static routing tables, assume fixed endpoints. Also, they are not location aware and were designed primarily for voice communications. By contrast, next-generation IP selective routers combine routing and database functions, maintaining up-to-date users, locations and PSAPs that are dynamically updated (not static), location-aware. They assume mobility of users and endpoints, are designed for all types of data routing and can utilize either civic addresses or geo coordinates. This revolution in routing capabilities is truly astounding and will have profound implications for call centers.

Which Road Will the Industry Take?

Like any emerging technology, the broad adoption of i3 industry-wide may ultimately take one of several common paths toward the achievement of a “critical mass” of support after which there is no turning back and anyone not on board quickly gets left behind and shut out. The “fast-track” adoption scenario involves timely and coordinated action where top-down coordination meets bottoms-up grass roots efforts, typically involving state/federal involvement and public/private partnerships. The “slowroll” adoption scenario involves the emergence of multiple competing factions forcing PSAPs to take sides, and leading to bootstrap efforts whereby regional networks emerge according to local needs without broader coordination or planned interoperability. The “disruptive technology” path posits a technological breakthrough whereby maverick efforts upend carefully tended plans, the pace of change quickens even further and begins to more closely resemble the “get it now” consumer model. In light of this uncertainty, the best advice is to cover your bases and maximize your options.

Network Service Providers

9-1-1 is important to network service providers, but represents just a small part of its overall business portfolio, so it’s just not the driving influence that governs its day-to-day operations and long-term strategic investment considerations. Fixed-line and wireless carriers exhibit wide variations in their capabilities and specific technology implementations, often have multiple legacy infrastructures to maintain, and possess differing abilities to make new investments. In some cases, Congress prevents historical land-line phone carriers from abandoning legacy service, thus limiting their ability to make new investments. Some carriers have proprietary revenue models to protect (ALI databases sold by the “dip”), along with mileage-based pricing formulas, often with incompatible tariff structures. The telecommunications industry is currently consolidating, services vary greatly by geographic location, and competition and choices are often limited. Finally, it may not always be in the carriers’ best interest to cooperate with one another, as differentiation in service offerings and capabilities (think Cable, Satellite and Fiber) can often accrue to their individual advantage. With these facts in mind, it is wise not to put all your eggs in one basket and a safer play to maintain an open agnostic approach.

Inferences and Predictions

Innovation brings both opportunities and risks. Implications for PSAP equipment in the next generation include greater system interdependency, more Web delivery of software with in-place upgrades reducing downtime, and an increased service-oriented focus including secure remotely managed services that ensure high system uptime availability, data and network protection, and remote data access. Hedge your bets profitably by supporting multiple networks. Carefully consider what data to trust to “the cloud,” making sure you remain fully in control of chain of evidence and the liability issues involved, and take some baby steps via a regional network approach.

Strike the Right Balance

Responsible PSAP directors must balance powerful competing forces, foremost the desire to reduce operating costs while maintaining the ability to adapt to change and bring powerful new capabilities online. Realize immediate benefits today without painting yourself into a corner later by laying the groundwork now to prepare for the onset of NG9-1-1 full capabilities that phase in over time. Maximize your options with an all-inclusive network-agnostic approach and embrace the future by being open to whatever comes next. 

Michael Rosen is the Product Marketing Manager for PlantCML, an EADS North American Company. He can be reached at mrosen@plantcml-eads.com.

Photo courtesy of PlantCML, an EADS North America Company.

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2010

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