911 is well recognized as the nationwide short dialing code used to call for emergency assistance. The 911 dialing convention and process originally was designed for the traditional, circuit-switched landline telephone network in the 1960s. 911 calls are separated from normal call processing by the originating communications service provider and typically are routed to the appropriate local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), whose personnel assesses the nature of the caller’s need and dispatches appropriate assistance. 911 is regulated in part by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well as by state and local boards.

In order for 911 to function optimally, service provider networks must be capable of routing the call as well as callback information and caller location, and PSAPs must be able to access this call information. Only two-way, real time communications thus far have been deemed by the FCC to be subject to 911 calling obligations, but as mobile apps and smart speakers proliferate, the question of what the public should expect from these devices to support emergency calling and response is unresolved.

As wireless calling in general went mainstream in the 1990s, wireless calling to 911 also began rapidly to increase. However, real-time routing of calls to the proper local PSAP was problematic, as wireless calls could, at best, be identified only roughly by the location of the cell tower of the caller’s radio transmission, something that could change in the course of a call and also that failed to provide any specific location information about the caller. With encouragement from the FCC and the public safety community, wireless carriers experimented with technical methods to report wireless caller location with greater geographic precision, and the FCC adopted baseline expectations for wireless carrier reporting of location information. This provision of wireless caller location and wireless call back information required PSAPs to upgrade or modify their equipment to be able to process this additional information.

More complexity was introduced into the 911 ecosystem with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling, as these calls can originate from anywhere, and thus are independent of any specific physical location, making it a challenge to route 911 calls to the appropriate local PSAP without knowing the actual location of the caller. The solution has been to require that the calling party register their physical location with their provider and update this information when it changes. More recently, Multi Line Telephone Systems (MLTS) and other centralized calling systems had made news in that they do not automatically pinpoint the location of a 911 caller on a corporate campus or similar setting. If the caller cannot provide this information, first responders are hampered by only having a street address for a high rise office building. Thus, the FCC is looking at whether to advance a requirement that this equipment provide greater location and more accurate call back information to PSAPs going forward.

With the introduction of each new network technology, new technical challenges in achieving effective connections for Enhanced 911 (E911) communications have been raised, and over time, resolved. However, many new service capabilities required investment in new technology both on service provider side and on that of the PSAPs. PSAP equipment and operations typically are funded by states and localities as well as through assessments on service providers that are passed onto their customers and PSAPs cannot quickly change out embedded technology.

Thus far, the FCC has not considered adopting new 911 access obligations for outward calling only communications technologies. However, in approaching these issues, the FCC consistently considers whether the public has a reasonable expectation that a particular 911 use case will actually work, and the caller be connected and get emergency assistance. The FCC is encouraging the development and deployment of “Next Generation 911” which is the concept that 911 voice, video or text “calls” could be made from any device that is connected to an Internet Protocol network and processed by PSAPs.

Which brings us to smart speakers. As smart speakers in homes become ubiquitous, there are legitimate questions about whether they can (or should) become part of the E911 ecosystem. The practical considerations for the FCC will be whether in-home smart devices have the ability to place E911 calls on demand, and provide the callback and location functionality that many other E911 platforms offer. Several issues make any near term new FCC 911 obligation on smart speakers less likely. First, there is no traditional phone number associated with most smart speakers, and while some may have capability to place outgoing phone calls, there is no consistent established means by which these devices may be “called back” by a 911 dispatcher. They also lack the type of GPS location reporting function or capability that was key for wireless devices like smartphones to be able to provide this critical information to PSAPs. Another issue is the potential cost for the more than 6,000 estimated PSAPs operating nationwide to upgrade or replace their equipment (and potentially their processes) to handle smart speaker emergency calls along with all the other types of traditional and Next Generation 911 emergency communications being received each day.

Last fall the FCC kicked off a proceeding that, among other things, asks questions about whether the agency should rethink outbound VoIP services that may partner with businesses that offer 911 smartphone apps that permit the placement of 911 calls. Without having location and call back information, these calls could be dangerously misrouted. This and the MLTS calling issues are the FCC’s current focus. Thus, the FCC does not appear ready to consider whether smart in home devices should be required to recognize a 911 call request and route it, while also providing to the PSAP the traditional types of information that are needed to dispatch assistance. While smart home hubs can dim the lights and play music on demand, they are not ready to assume the role of the in-home emergency communications device just yet.

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Author Information:
Laura Phillips, a longtime telecommunications lawyer, advises wireless and wired companies on issues related to new technologies, from spectrum auctions to the Internet of Things and data privacy. She also represents telecom clients on regulatory matters. Ms. Phillips is a partner in the Washington office of Drinker Biddle & Reath and chairs the firm’s Government and Regulatory Affairs Group. She can be reached at laura.phillips@dbr.com.