IETF taking on 911 problem within VOIP

The Internet engineering community is making progress on the thorny issue of how best to route U.S. emergency communications such as 911 calls over the Internet.

This yearlong effort is important for companies and government agencies that are migrating to VOIP and must ensure that police and firefighters can locate and respond to 911 calls placed from IP phones in their office buildings.

The IETF hopes to have a technical solution for the 911 problem ready for testing by year-end. The IETF effort is called ECRIT for Emergency Context Resolution with Internet Technologies.

"From a societal perspective, ECRIT is one of the most important problems that the IETF is undertaking right now," says Henning Schulzrinne, chair of the department of computer science at Columbia University and author of several documents under consideration by the ECRIT working group.

The ECRIT effort will have a major impact on service providers, which will bear most of the cost required to retrofit IP networks to determine the location of IP-based 911 calls and deliver them to the closest emergency call center. Experts anticipate upgrades for ECRIT will cost wireline and wireless carriers millions of dollars, which they can recoup from consumers.

"Nobody is expecting carriers to do this for free," Schulzrinne says. "They are already collecting money for 911 services. . . . They'll have to spend some money, but there is a funding stream available."

The Public Switched Telephone Network is configured to recognize numbers such as 911 as a call for emergency services. Carriers know the physical location of the originator of these calls.

The Internet, however, was not designed with emergency communications in mind. Until last November, VOIP service providers were not required by law to provide 911 services.

"What consumers don't know is that if you buy a VOIP system, you may not be connected to the 911 system. It's on a case-by-case basis," explains Greg Rohde, executive director of the E911 Institute in Washington, D.C. "The situation with VOIP is that providers started offering service to customers without any requirement that they connect to 911. . . . Now we're in the process of bootstrapping the system."

The FCC issued an order last June that gave VOIP carriers until Nov. 28, 2005, to provide 911 services.

"No carriers are 100 percent compliant yet," Rohde says. "A lot of credit is due the VOIP carriers, who have been doing a massive effort over the last six months to meet the FCC order."

What the ECRIT working group will provide is a standard approach to handling IP-based emergency calls. The IETF approach will support not only voice calls made over the Internet but also text messaging and video transmissions.

"There's a definite need for a standards-based approach to this problem," Rohde says. "It would have been nice if it was done a couple years ago, but it's still incredibly important work."

The ECRIT group plans to produce documents that outline requirements, terminology and security issues. The documents will explain how to identify IP-based emergency calls, how to associate these calls with physical locations, how to route them based on physical locations, and how to discover the media stream types available from the caller.

The stickiest point is how to map IP-based emergency calls from a particular geographic location to the nearest public safety call center. The working group is debating whether to use a protocol developed by domain name registries or Web services to handle this mapping function.

This is how ECRIT will work: When an IP phone dials 911; the IP phone will obtain its location information, such as a street address or office number. The IP phone will query a database using a new mapping protocol that will take its location information and find the appropriate emergency call center. The IP phone will then place a call to that emergency call center. The call will be marked so that IP equipment can recognize it as an emergency call and route it correctly. The emergency call center will receive the IP-based 911 call along with the location of the caller.

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