Why Don’t I Need a Landline?: The Rise of Wireless 9-1-1 Service

October 23, 2018

According to NENA, the 9-1-1 Association, approximately 240 million calls a year are made to 9-1-1 in the US. 80% of them — 192 million calls — come from wireless devices.

Now, the industry is asking what percentage of those calls comes from smart devices and if the public safety infrastructure can handle this rapid, high-tech change.

What’s the point of a landline?

It’s a big change within just a few years: from requiring wired home phones to relying on wireless connections. Before cellular devices or other wireless gadgets were mainstream, landlines were a default fixture in homes. True landlines, or more accurately wired lines, are connected to their telecom supplier via powered copper wires. These copper lines connect to switch boxes and transmit between phones plugged into that network. Another kind of landlines are those that are internet-based – VoIP phones. They connect via lines to an internet modem and carry data over that connection.

Apart from being the only telecommunication option before cellular devices, the two kinds of wired lines had benefits in case of emergency. Traditional landlines depended on those energized copper wires routed to your house. This powered wire system ensured phones ran even when natural disasters hit or the electricity was cut. While VoIP landlines can lose connection during power outages, their service isn’t compromised by other climate or social events.

The more likely emergencies for both phones, however, are those events that happen in the home and require public safety services. Using landlines allowed calls to be routed faster to the appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP) where dispatchers coordinate an appropriate response. With modern automation and database technology, PSAP caller data automatically displays on the dispatcher’s screen. This information includes the exact address, names of residents and other pertinent details that help dispatchers coordinate the situation. It is as specific as apartments and offices in buildings. This feature is called Enhanced 9-1-1, or E911.

Since 2016, however, individuals have abandoned landlines at ever faster rates. At the end of 2017, only a third of homes had landlines, and only 20% of those were traditional copper wired lines. Despite the relative novelty of primary cellular communication, individual public safety districts have worked toward implementing dispatch technology that makes cellular 9-1-1 a less risky process.

Cell Phones and 9-1-1

Cell phones dial emergency services the exact same way as landlines, but issues can arise in the public safety networks response to cellular communications. Because cell phones are wireless, their location and other information is not hardened into a database anywhere. As well, they’re equipped with GPS that may be limited in location accuracy: it could indicate a street block, but not the exact apartment.

As a result of this changing communication format, local public safety networks and national systems implemented E911 Phase I and Phase II by 2001. These two enhancements required networks to transmit caller callback info and location, respectively, to PSAPs to prevent life-threatening delays in dispatch service.

Since rolling out these changes*, public safety networks have increased their ability to handle wireless emergency calls. As well, cellular providers such as Verizon have stepped up their efforts to ensure customers have appropriate access, even going so far as to carry non-network emergency calls.

Wireless 9-1-1 Services and IoT

While home phones have gradually become mobile, other wireless communication services have challenged the public safety systems of America. As more consumers and businesses depend on IoT devices to carry out communications tasks, IoT integration with emergency services has been an essential concern. Wearable IoT safety devices, such as the women’s Athena, are some of those cutting-edge devices tangling with this tricky issue.

One of the biggest issues facing IoT emergency services is the roll out of “NextGen 9-1-1,” or NG911, a catch all phrase that refers to technology that accepts non-human, non-voice information streams, such as automatic callers, video or text messages. The various software and some hardware involved in NG911 allow for improved data transmission. The biggest drawback to this implementation is upfront cost and the complication of interoperable technology between agencies and other jurisdictions.

However, as IoT becomes a technology standard across industries, solutions are being created to bridge the gap between devices and available public infrastructure. Some software companies, such as Bandwidth, offer tools for enterprises that diminish risk in emergency situations. These companies take over local routing of emergency calls, funneling calls to the appropriate PSAP and increasing location accuracy for response teams.

*Sealevel would like to note that the Federal Communications Commission has a list of 9-1-1 Wireless Services recommendations. One of these guidelines is to immediately state your name, cell number and location if you can speak. If E9-1-1 fails in your emergency instance, following that procedure ensures the most rapid response.