By Peter Sells
May 8, 2008
"Mr. Watson - come here - I want to see you." Alexander Graham Bell was one of the greatest visionaries in history but when he said those first words into his mouthpiece I doubt he could have conceived of the communication technology that has evolved in the 130 or so years since. I am sure of one thing, however: he knew exactly what his telephone was, how it worked, how to use it properly and what it was capable of. The same cannot be said, I suggest, of many people today. As technology becomes more complex it simultaneously becomes more susceptible to snafus and more mysterious to those not directly involved in its development. In the last couple of years, technical problems at Research in Motion made headlines when they temporarily knocked out BlackBerry service, and BlackBerries only became available 11 years ago. Before that, nobody had even heard of the things.
By Peter Sells
So, recent problems with VOIP 911 service should not come as a surprise. Most early adopters of voice over internet protocol – people who switched as soon as the technology became available as a replacement for traditional home phone service – were motivated by price. Understanding that their VOIP service would not connect to their local 911 call centre required knowledge of how VOIP worked and of their local 911 system. I'm not suggesting that people aren't capable of understanding these things, rather that a lot of people have not taken the time to learn about them. Folks expect to pick up the phone, dial a number and have it ring on the other end. The rest is not their problem or concern.
Here’s an example to show that this is not a new phenomenon. When I was a first-aid instructor in the late '80s teaching people how and when to call 911, it was consistently frustrating trying to try to get people in workplace settings to understand that they needed to get an outside line from their phone system before dialing 911. If the code for an outside line was to dial 9, which is common, I explained that they needed to dial 9 and then 911. "Well I should only have to dial 911." "No, you have to dial 9 for an outside line, then dial 911." "When my friend spilled hot coffee on her leg I called 911 from my desk and nothing happened." "That is because you actually only called '11' after getting the outside line." Blank stare. You get the picture.
It seemed that 911 had become a magic solution: one number to remember; easy to dial; easy to teach your kids. "They" would take care of the details, "they" being the emergency services and the phone companies. And, to a large extent, "they" did so. In my dispatch days, phone calls would come across the screen with ANI/ALI information, which stands for automatic number information/automatic location information. Very handy stuff when you are trying to verify an address. But sometimes the locations would not make sense. How could a Toronto area code be attached to a Winnipeg address? Easy to understand once I was told that the location information came from the billing address associated with the phone number. So, if a Toronto sales office had its phone bill paid by the corporate HQ in Winnipeg, then ANI and ALI didn’t agree. I understand that this is no longer the case, and hopefully someone whose dispatch experience is not 20 years out of date like mine will comment on this blog and enlighten us. For all I know, the phone companies have superimposed onto ANI the actual location of the phone, to develop a more straight-shooting system with Overlaid Knowledge of Local Identification, called ANI OKLI.
Voice over internet protocol is exactly what it says. Your voice message goes over the internet according to a digital encoding/decoding protocol. The system actually handling the traffic can be anywhere in the world. The regulation and mechanics of tying your message back to a local emergency service call centre have been laid onto the VOIP system after the fact, just as happened with the enhanced 911 features of the 1980s and 1990s. The responsibility of the provider only goes as far as is governed by the regulating bodies, which don't react quickly to technological change. All of this puts the onus on users to understand exactly what they have bought, to be aware of the limitations and to hold the providers accountable.
During the blackout in Ontario in 2003, I had no cell phone service and no internet service but our good old low-tech land line hung in there like a trooper.