The real emergency is the state of our nation’s 911 capabilities

Commentary by Tony Bardo Assistant vice president for government solutions, Hughes

Consider this scenario: You are at your workplace and you hear noise that sounds like gunshots down the hall. You immediately close and lock your door, turn off the lights and take cover under a desk out of sight.

You want to call 911 but don’t want to risk being heard on the phone. Instead, you try to send a...

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Commentary by Tony Bardo
Assistant vice president for government solutions, Hughes

Consider this scenario: You are at your workplace and you hear noise that sounds like gunshots down the hall. You immediately close and lock your door, turn off the lights and take cover under a desk out of sight.

You want to call 911 but don’t want to risk being heard on the phone. Instead, you try to send a text to your closest public safety answering point (PSAP), only to receive a bounce-back message informing you that your PSAP does not support text- to-911 capabilities.

Tony Bardo

To your extreme detriment, you have learned first-hand that most of our nation’s emergency response centers are dreadfully behind the technological curve.

How can we cost-effectively change this unacceptable picture and bring such an essential communications service into the 21st century?

The hard reality is that most emergency service call centers are still using outdated, legacy circuit-switched systems without the ability for integration with even older-generation 2G cellular (let alone modern 3G/4G technology) to carry SMS text or picture messages.

This has spurred the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to call for the next generation of 911 capabilities, referred to as “Next-Generation 911” or “NG911,” that fully embrace non-voice alternative methods of communication, such as text and video messaging.

In addition to facilitating service to people with disabilities, Next-Generation 911 technology would use cellular signals to provide dispatchers with more information, such as the caller’s registered address, than traditional 911 services.

If the PSAP in the prior scenario had NG911 capabilities, not only could it have responded to your text, but it also could have automatically grouped all incoming 911 calls/texts from that specific time and location into a single data stream to gain a comprehensive view of the situation, thereby improving the quality of response while saving valuable time and resources.

But simply implementing a terrestrial-only solution of fixed and mobile cellular networks to provide NG911 capabilities is not enough. When disaster strikes— whether natural or otherwise—even the most advanced combination of terrestrial fiber, cable and/or cellular technologies can be disabled or knocked out. No amount of redundant terrestrial paths can overcome that fundamental vulnerability.

One solution is to introduce diversity to terrestrial networks. Satellite networks are more reliable in disasters and provide alternate communications paths for backhauling traffic, ensuring NG911 services reach the highest levels of availability. This is important even in minor emergencies, as networks’ bandwidths can quickly become overloaded by consumer traffic.

Relieving this bandwidth congestion can be done quickly and cost-effectively by installing a single satellite dish – a one-time investment that enables PSAPs to hedge against this risk.

Residents of Virginia and Washington may remember the earthquake of 2011, which left the Washington Monument covered in latticework and closed for repairs until early 2014. Even though that earthquake was relatively small and, thankfully, resulted in only minor injuries, worried residents were quick to pick up their phones to call loved ones.

However, as the FCC and major carriers such as Verizon have acknowledged, network congestion meant that many callers were unable to connect and were greeted by busy signals rather than the voices of family members.

Most of the time cellular and terrestrial communications networks are perfectly well equipped to handle emergency calls and NG911 capabilities. However, the difference between “most of the time” and “all of the time” could be the difference between life and death for an emergency caller.

As an alternate path backup for terrestrial, satellite utilizes switching equipment that can detect breaks in the primary network and automatically re- route any dropped communications packets over the satellite link. This path diversity enables citizen and mission-critical government communications to be quickly restored in case of temporary loss due to an emergency, retaining functionality in even the most severe disasters.

Available nationwide and easy to deploy, satellite is ideal for emergency communications in rural and remote areas where construction of terrestrial networks is cost-prohibitive. The only step required by an agency to implement satellite as a path diverse option is to incorporate a satellite dish and router with the appropriate level of broadband service into the overall communications program. A prime example of the positive impact of satellite on emergency communications was its deployment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the New York area.

Notwithstanding that 911 capabilities are severely outdated, the good news is that awareness of their critical importance is now generating momentum to upgrade them with the latest technologies. And by employing an architecture that combines the best of terrestrial fixed, mobile and satellite technologies, PSAPs will ensure the highest quality and most robust communications networking possible -call it “defense in depth.” Our nation deserves nothing less.


Tony Bardo is the assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes, a provider of satellite broadband. Tony can be reached at Tony.bardo@hughes.com.