The 911 Network

The mother of all electronic networks, the old analog land-line telephone network, is turning into the 911 network. In the United States, all 911 emergency dispatch calls are carried over the land-line network, and although emergency calls are only roughly one out of each one million calls, they account for a significant part of the cost of the network, around 10 percent of the total cost to customers. This is an arrangement that will become more strained as more land lines disappear. Five years from now, emergency calls could be over half the cost of the land-line network, and for many customers the ability to make an emergency call might be the only compelling reason to plug into the 911 network, as it may by then be known.

Instead of planning to maintain such an old-style network just for the purpose of emergency calls, it is time to start looking for alternatives.

The Shrinking Telephone Network

The last time I moved, I concluded that it was too expensive to have either a television cable or a telephone line connected. It seemed strange at first to be disconnected from the two big analog wire networks, but it turns out I am not alone.

The total telephone network continues to expand, but the wireline segment, as land lines are known in the business, is down 8 percent from last year (at one major phone company, at least). For a supposedly stable utility, that is a precipitous decline. What is more, wireline is now, for the first time, smaller than mobile. Apparently, as of the end of 2007, more people have callular phones than land phones.

The Internet (or VOIP) part of the telephone network is also growing rapidly, especially in office buildings where digital voice networks are easier to install and maintain than the old-style telephone wires. Businesses are not rushing to replace their phone networks, but inexorably, all the big corporate office buildings are switching to Internet voice service. This change alone will take more than half of the land-line network away.

At the same time, people like me who move to new homes are finding that it is much easier and less expensive to arrange for Internet telephone service than land-line service.

And so, the wireline segment of the telephone network, which defined the network as recently as the beginning of 2007, is likely to be the third largest part of it by the end of 2008, and it will only continue to decline from there.

Emergency and Other Calls

The 911 emergency telephone number was standardized a generation ago as an easy-to-learn standard way to call for help from anywhere — any home phone, any pay phone. At the time, no one imagined that 911 could be the last phone number left on a network that had otherwise largely shut down. Yet that is where we seem to be headed.

The user of an Internet or mobile telephone never needs to dial telephone numbers. Instead, to call a person, you can dial a two-digit number you have assigned to that person, or you can simply pick their name from a list. But this also means that Internet and mobile telephones have no real need for telephone numbers. You could replace all the telephone numbers with domain names, for example, and the average telephone user (remembering that the average telephone user is now using a cellular telephone) would scarcely care about the difference. And as long as this is so easy from the user’s point of view, it is bound to happen sooner or later. We are headed toward a telephone system that is based on something more intuitive and flexible than ten-digit numbers.

(This would seem to leave out pay phones — yet that may not matter either. The number of pay phones has declined by something like 95 percent in the last decade.)

The one exception, though, is the emergency number 911. The emergency authorities have made sure there is no alternative to dialing 911. That is the one telephone number you may still need to dial. And this means that 911 is likely to be the very last telephone number.

The original idea of 911 was to make emergency help easy for anyone to access. It is not as easy as it could be — the old joke, “What’s the number for 911?” was not a joke for the people who had that particular confusion. Now imagine a generation of people who grow up without the experience of having to dial telephone numbers. Then imagine someone who has never dialed a number and is using a telephone that isn’t particularly designed to be used that way, trying to dial a telephone number for the very first time during an emergency. The question might be, “What’s the domain name for 911?” And the answer might be something like, “There is no domain name for 911. You have to press this button and go to this screen and go to the numeric keypad and press the numbers 9-1-1, then press the ‘send’ button.” And they’re supposed to figure this out while the house is burning down or something. In this scenario, which could be just five or ten years away, 911 no longer seems like a way to make emergency help easily accessible.

Surely there are ways to highlight 911 to make it easier to find on a telephone, but as long as it is a telephone number in a system that is no longer based on telephone numbers — and remember, this is already the experience of Internet and cellular telephone users — it is bound to be confusing to a great many people.

Costs and Limitations

When 911 service was first introduced, it was simple and inexpensive. If it remains tied to the increasingly archaic land-line network, it will become more and more expensive and inefficient.

The 911 service is designed around the limitations of the land-line network. It is a voice-only service that in most cases cannot even receive text, even though a few lines of text would often be sufficient to fully explain an emergency situation, and text can sometimes be sent in situations where voice communications would be dangerous. Currently, a person who is being kidnapped may attempt to send a text message to someone else, who it is hoped will relay the emergency situation to the 911 call center. It’s absolutely nuts, and it’s only going to get more nuts as the phone system evolves.

A land-line telephone is at a known location. The same cannot be said of any other kind of telephone. To get emergency help to people, you may have to start by determining their location, yet the 911 call centers are far from the ideal setup for this. A 911 call is automatically routed to a call center that serves a specific county, which may or may not be the county the caller is located in. A 911 call is accompanied by automated information that provides the location of the caller, and this information is sometimes accurate and sometimes not, sometimes as specific as a street address and sometimes as vague as a 10-kilometer radius. These compromises were considered acceptable when 90 percent of calls came from land lines at known locations. It is time to revisit them now that we are about to have less than 30 percent of emergency calls coming from land lines.

The land-line network can still compete on cost with the Internet and mobile services. People who already have land lines do not need to rush out and replace them with other services to save money — yet. But we cannot keep maintaining a network built on millions of tons of copper wire indefinitely for an ever-shrinking pool of users. The land-line network will disappear at some point, and the time to start redesigning the emergency call system is now, so that we do not find ourselves with an ineffective emergency dispatch system or none at all as the old telephone network crumbles around it.

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