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Video Relay Service Technology and 9-1-1 Calls

Michael Maddix

Product Manager, Sorenson Communications



 I feel like I am really putting a lot of pieces together that we have heard about this morning.  There have been some great presentations that talk about a lot of the issues that I am going to discuss today relating to how VRS providers are attempting to resolve some of the obstacles facing providing 911 services.


What is VRS?


In my discussions during this conference, I have learned that there are many of you who may not be very familiar with exactly what a video relay service (VRS) call is.  If you just want to take a minute to look at the slide, I will explain it.


This represents a Deaf person who has a videophone establishing a connection to a video relay center.  The Deaf person is able to communicate in their natural language which is American Sign Language or ASL, and then the interpreter in turn calls the hearing person that they would like to speak with, or communicate with, and relays the conversation to them.


When that person responds, the interpreter then responds using ASL through the videophone connections that are established, and relays the communication back and forth between the parties involved.


Some important things about VRS that are worth noting is that it does allow the Deaf consumer to communicate in their native language, ASL.  It has become the preferred telecommunications method for the Deaf community.  It is a relatively new technology, but it is maturing rapidly, and it is quickly gaining additional features and truly much of the Deaf community recognizes it as providing the closest thing to functional equivalency in telephone services.


VRS and 9-1-1:  Obstacles


As Greg Hlibok mentioned earlier today, the FCC has waived requirements to provide 9-1-1 services because of the technical obstacles in providing this service.  To address the technical issues involved in providing 9-1-1 service, I am going to use a cliché from the real estate world.  I recently sold my house, and I sold it “by owner.”  One of the things I touted in selling my house was location, location, location.  It was close to schools, close to parks, and in a great neighborhood.  That is something that real estate always talks about: location, location, location.  But today I need to talk a little bit about location, location, and location as it relates to providing video relay service to 9-1-1.


The first obstacle with location is determining the location of the caller.  We have heard some of the people speaking this morning talk a little bit about that already and I am going to get into that in a further slide.           


The second problem with location is determining the location of the correct public service answering point, or PSAP, to send the call to.  I think that we have probably heard this term PSAP enough today, but it is important to understand that it is actually the facility that receives the 9-11 call and ultimately dispatches the emergency responder to you.


The third problem with location is being able to pass the location of the actual relay caller to the PSAP in the format that they are accustomed to receiving it, so that they can respond to you in a more effective and efficient manner.  With the traditional telephone system that is used with TTY, there is location information that is passed through the telephone system.  We have heard  these acronyms earlier today.  The first one being the Automatic Location Identification, or ALI.  This is a display that the PSAP receives with the caller's telephone number, their address and location, and other supplementary information that they can use in helping you in an emergency situation.


The second piece of information that is packaged with traditional telephone service is the Automatic Number Identification, or ANI.  And this simply is the phone number that you are calling from.  These pieces of information are vital to the PSAP in being able to route the call to the correct PSAP, and to help them to be able to respond.


However, video relay service, and also IP Relay which we have heard mentioned today, do not use a traditional phone system or the public switched telephone network.  They use IP, Internet Protocol, or IP networks.  With an IP network, each individual user has what is called an IP address, a unique identifier for a user on the network.  However this IP address does not pass the type of information that is passed by ANI or ALI, and oftentimes the IP address that we use when we use IP networks is something that is on loan to you.  It is what they call a dynamic IP address; as long as you are using your Internet connection they give you a particular address on the network.  But if you stop using it because you have shut down your computer, or your video conferencing device, or whatever you are using, then that IP address becomes available in a pool to other users who might come on to the network.  In the course of a short period of time, several different people might be using that same IP address -- but not all at the same time, at different times.  This creates an obstacle.


Some Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, will rent you an IP address that does not change.  This is also referred to as a static IP address.  However, even when a person does go through the effort to obtain a static IP address, there are issues because we have difficulty tying that to a location, a specific location.  But if a person does obtain an IP address, with registration of the location, we can do a lot better job of being able to identify where a person is located.




There are other tools that are available, and sometimes aiding to identify location on the Internet, or the IP network.  Some of these tools include what is called geo-IP lookup, where there are databases that can tell by the IP address what general area that you might be in.  It could be as large as a state or a region.  This tool isn't 100% reliable.  Oftentimes the IP address will code to the location of the servers for the Internet service provider rather than where you are physically located.  Even when it is successful in giving us a general geographical area this, really is not of a lot of value to the PSAP as we have discussed earlier.  There are often locations where there are multiple PSAPs servicing a very small geographical area and they really want to know exactly where you are at in case there is a disconnect to be able to send you the help that you have requested.


As a service provider we are always looking for new tools.  Earlier today Steve mentioned that his company is working on a tool that could aid in locating users on the IP network.  I intend to spend some time today with Steve during lunch, learning if that is a tool that we could use to be able to solve part of this problem.  The next area of location that we have an issue with as providers as been identified is determining the correct PSAP.


I want to take minute to talk to you about my history this year.  As a provider of video relay service, we recognize the importance of 9-1-1 calls.  We want as much as anything to be able to provide this service in the most efficient and effective way possible.  This has been a personal focus of mine this year as I have been trying to look for solutions.  As a product manager, that is part of what I do.  I try to solve problems in our offering and try to improve it and recognizing its importance, I have spent a lot of time on this. 


I was finding a lot of different companies to talk to.  I was not finding a lot of answers.  But I was finding a lot of people willing to talk to me.  Interestingly enough, the FCC put out their VoIP, or Voiceover IP ruling, earlier this year, and suddenly the focus of all of these companies went to trying to meet the needs of the VoIP providers.  I found them a lot more difficult to talk to after that order was released.


But that's the down side of it.  The good side of it is that now when I am getting a hold of them they have a lot better answers for me because they have been able to find solutions -- or they are working on solutions to try to meet this November deadline that the FCC has for the VoIP industry.  That is what is happening; these kinds of solutions that are coming into play for the VoIP industry will be leveraged into the relay services, and they will ultimately help the relay consumers in being able to find the kind of service that they would like to have as they attempt to reach 911 services. 


As far as locating the correct PSAP, if we are able to obtain that location either in some dynamic electronic way or whether it be through realtime conveying of the address during the relay call, we have located possible sources that will help us to be able to determine that correct PSAP. This is really something that has been a byproduct of the VoIP efforts that are happening.  It is important that we do find the correct PSAP if we reach a PSAP for Boston, for a caller who is calling from Washington D.C., they are not going to be able to dispatch help to you.  They might be able to offer help to you over the phone, but what you really need an emergency responder to come to your door.


So these third parties providing solution such as this PSAP resolution service are going to be a very vital role in being able to provide the solution to 9-1-1 and relay services.  The relay service providers cannot solve every problem, and it is important we as an industry recognize the need for help from outside companies who have expertise and seek out and obtain that help.


The next piece of the puzzle has to do with being able to pass location of the relay caller to the PSAP using this ANI and ALI information so that they have what they need.  That is another big obstacle for us as relay providers.  It is probably a little less challenging for companies that do the TTY and, for instance, CapTel which is using the traditional phone system where they are obtaining that information.  Location is something that has to be supplied as we relay the call, and again this is another area that third-party companies are likely to provide the solutions that will be able to bring this into play.  As this evolves as an industry and providing emergency services over the IP networks in general, these solutions will quickly find their way to the relay services that operate on the IP networks.


Potential Impact of FCC VoIP and 9-1-1 Ruling


As  I have already mentioned and others have mentioned earlier today, there have been a lot of impacts because of the efforts in the VoIP area.  Many hearing people are beginning to move their services away from traditional phone lines on to the IP network in the form of voice over IP or VoIP. With this service, the same 9-1-1 issues that relay users are faced with in IP networks have risen their heads; and the answers are beginning to come.  It seems like some of the dates that have been put out have been very stretching in trying to find these solutions, and as Gregg mentioned earlier in his comments, those dates might need to be extended as they look to see what solutions are in place.  I think that a lot of progress has been made, and I also believe that it was important that third parties get involved in this.


Now, these third parties are not forced to provide solutions, by any means. It is a business opportunity for them to provide a solution, and they are sometimes very expensive to be able to secure. Over time as the natural competition begins to happen within these third-party companies providing solutions, that cost factor will become less of a factor.  The most important thing is that we are able to get solutions in place, and to begin to use those and to offer them specifically related to the 9-1-1 area. 


As far as finding solutions, it would be wonderful if tomorrow or better yet today if IP networks found a way to package ANI and ALI with every IP address - that would be fantastic!  A big help would be if they somehow made a rule that there could be no more dynamic IP addresses because then it would lead to the next solution which would be to have a registration system where we could easily tie a user to their IP address, and just like how VoIP users have the opportunity to register their location information for emergency services, that same opportunity could be extended to the users of relay services.


However, I do not see many of the Internet Service Providers jumping to do that because it is the right thing to do.  The reason why they have things like dynamic IP addresses is because of a business model.  It makes more sense for them to be able to loan out IP addresses as they are needed rather than to secure one for every person. 


Again, I think a lot of the solutions will come through third-party companies that have specialized in 9-1-1 solutions.  There are many of them out there.  We have heard organizations such as NENA mentioned today, and involvement with those types of organizations working together as industry and consumers is important.  The VRS providers have started a series of meetings where we are coming together and meeting to try to address issues that we might be able to get some synergy on.  I think that is an important step. 


Someone alluded that there might be a comment period opening for further comments to the FCC on 9-1-1.  It is important to let your feelings be known, and hopefully we can find solutions that will ultimately allow us to provide the type of service providers want to provide, and that the consumer of relay services want to be able to have, and ultimately get it as close to being functionally equivalent as we can.  Our commitment as a provider of video relay services is to focus on this issue and to do what we can to provide this solution sooner rather than later. 


Questions and Answers:


Cindy Officer:  I am a VRS user both in my home and in my office.  I do not have a regular phone line.  Now, when I apply to receive the equipment for video relay service, my application asked me my name, my address and basic information about me so that when I call and an interpreter shows up the interpreter knows my name and knows who I am.  So why is it that the location that the PSAPs need, that location information cannot just be on the screen along with other information that is available so that they have that to talk to me?


MIKE MADDIX:  We don't have all of the technical pieces in place.  There are obstacles that we are still facing in being able to provide a 9-1-1 solution, but we are diligently working on those.  First, we need the technology in place.  As we get that technology we likely will offer the opportunity to users of our video relay service to be able to register, to be able to use that information for emergency calls.  And that is likely going to be part of the solution for a long period of time, just like it is for the voice over IP industry, that the users when they move their device, register that they have done so.  College students, for instance  live in the dorms during the school year, and they have their videophone or their webcam or whatever it is that they use in conjunction with our video relay service.  Then they go for the summer to spend the summer with their families.  Rather than leave their videophone in the dorm, I suspect that a lot of them have really grown accustomed to using this great form of relay, and they take it with them. Ultimately it is still going to be up to the consumer to let us know that they have moved.  That is probably going to be through a registration process.  It is likely to be an optional service.  We cannot force people to register, but it is in their best interest in this case, and I think that most people will want to do that.  So it should be coming in the future. 


Janina Sajka:  I am very interested also to join Steve's table at lunch because I am curious about the solution.  It seems that the IP networks are not exactly designed to help you with location as we've talked about.  Of course, the good news is that we do have the ability for additional name space there, IP 6 is sort of getting there.  Maybe we move to it, maybe we don't.  There are also those reasons that sometimes people use these dynamic addresses as part of a firewall as part of a security and we can agree or not agree with that.  Perhaps we borrow other technologies to provide the location information.  Maybe there is an even more compelling reason why we need to do that.  I wonder how long the Cingulars, the T-Mobiles, the Verizons, the Sprints are going to continue to maintain best digital cellular network, and also a data capability to be able to do wireless communications from your computer, WiFi, or WiMax, whatever -- it seems like the natural extension of VoIP is a cordless phone. You plug it in at home, you want to hit the road, and you take it with you.  Instead of having a cellular phone, and a phone at home, you have just a phone.  Use it at home, you use it wherever you go.  So we can't, I think, just count on registration where you fill in your address, here's where I am and now I can get E-911.  That's a band-aid that will take care of us for a year or two with VoIP.  I think ultimately we need a better solution than that because I don't think that the technology will stop there. 


MIKE MADDIX:  There are some that suggested that global positioning service or GPS might be something that would work really well with this concept.  The problem with GPS is when you go inside of a building it does not work anymore.  You could use the last location of where a signal was received,  but that is, again, kind of close but it is really not what the PSAPs are looking for.  I believe that the VRS is really kind of a young technology, but it is maturing, in the sense that voice and telecommunications over the Internet is still an emerging technology.  I can assure you that there are brilliant engineers in this country that will solve these problems, and it is just a matter of how fast it is going to happen.          


There are great things that will happen, and it is going to be wonderful and we hope to be part of the solution in providing the answers to that that bring ultimately better service to all people.  It is just going to take a little bit of time.  There are brilliant people in this country that are working on it, and the fire that has been lit by the FCC is certainly helping it to get attention.


Audience member:  I believe in simplicity.  You have a ID number and so forth, just like a dog has a ID number.  Why can't we have that?  Why can't we have an ID that can be matched up and used?  In the PSAP there is no ID number.  So we can have the identity of where you are.  There is a permanent place.  So if I call they know where I am.  They know my location instead of going through all of this complicated schema.  I think that the simple way is to look if the PSAPs themselves can be identified. 


MIKE MADDIX:  Sounds good!  I think any solution that gets us there, but I'm not sure which one it will be.  I think that it will involve thinking out of the box.   I believe that probably the real answers have not been thought of yet, and someone is going to think of them or dream them up in the middle of the night and go to work the next day and do it, and it will be wonderful.  Solutions will come, unfortunately it does take a little bit of time for that to happen. 


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