Broadband NextGen 911 Arrives on Scene

by Matt Klassen on November 24, 2010

It should come as little surprise that with the rapid and often exponential growth of communications technologies that many governmental services, laws, and various bureaucratic nonsense lag significantly behind. One need only to look at the ongoing Net Neutrality standoff to realize just how antiquated the government’s stance on communication really is.                      

But there are other federal services that have unfortunately lagged behind the times as well, as anyone who has had to phone 911 from a mobile device has discovered. Not only has the country’s 911 services been unable to locate cellphone signals, but they’ve really only worked with standard voice communication, an avenue of communicating that is now simply but one of a myriad of options.

Enter the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) with its slick new Broadband-enabled Next Generation 911, the government’s answer to its antiquated emergency services. This NextGen emergency system will be setup to receive emergency communication in a variety of formats, meaning that if you need help don’t worry about calling 911, consider texting or sending them a streaming video instead.

In a speech delivered yesterday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski proclaimed that it is clearly “time to bring 911 into the Digital Age.” He noted that the importance of this much needed technological upgrade is due in no small part to the fact that almost 70% of 911 calls in the country are made from cellphones already, and seeing that video and texting features are such an integral part of the mobile world, it makes sense to integrate them into this essential service.

Further, Chairman Genachowski stated that the current 911 system is woefully inadequate. “If you find yourself in an emergency situation and want to send a text for help, you can pretty much text anyone except a 9-1-1 call center. That is unacceptable.”

But why would someone need text messages when voice communication is more reliable, direct, and not to mention faster? The answer is simple, there are times—unfortunately enough—where speaking to a 911 operator actually puts the victims in more danger. Consider an example where you or someone in your family is home alone when someone breaks in. As you’re hiding in the closet trying desperately not to be heard, one could imagine that the relatively silent option of texting 911 would be a handy feature to have.

As you might expect, however, this upgrade won’t come cheap, as significant resources will have to be allocated to upgrade 911 call centers to receive multimedia data like video, photographs, and text messages from a variety of kinds of wired, wireless, or IP-based devices.

Beyond the simply technological upgrades, considerable amounts of additional training will be needed for 911 emergency operators, as they will now be expected to decipher panicked text abbreviations, blurry cellphone pictures, and other kinds of potentially confusing data in a timely and efficient manner, and then be able to communicate the pertinent information to the emergency personal en route to the scene; certainly no small task for a service that relies on the effective and efficient transfer of information in order to save lives.

But as most of us in this technological age already know, more technology means more data, all of which requires more interpretation, and that, my friends, does not always mean greater efficiency.

Photo c/o Oh Gizmo

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