After years of delays and the death of a baby in Calgary, Canada is moving ahead with another upgrade of its outdated 911 system, which will help emergency dispatchers locate a caller using an Internet phone.
If successful, the changes would turn the country's emergency phone system into one of the more advanced in the world, only months after concerns were raised that it was lagging behind other countries.
The decision, unveiled by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in newly released documents, is the second phase of a broader revamp of the country's 911 system that began a few months ago after a spate of several deaths and near-tragedies in 2008.
The push to update the 911 system for Internet-based phone calls comes after the CRTC said in January that it was ordering the telecom sector to install new technology so that emergency dispatchers could locate cellphone callers. Such cellular technology has been widely used in the United States for years, leading to accusations that Canada's 911 infrastructure was out of date. However, few countries have managed to tackle the Internet phone problem yet.
"This is really about defining the next-generation 911 network," said Greg Burdett, the head of Jagged Networks, which designs some of the equipment used to locate online phone calls.
"It's extremely important that we get it right. And it's important that we get started soon because it's going to take a long time to implement. The longer we delay, the more we're going to make bandages to the current system until something really breaks."
The process to equip dispatchers to locate Internet phone calls will take longer than the upgrades being made to handle cellphone 911 calls, which could be completed next year. The CRTC expects to issue a decision on how to proceed in early 2010.
Internet phones, better known as voice-over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, are a burgeoning industry. They are often regular phones plugged into a modem and can be moved anywhere there is an Internet connection. There are about 250,000 VoIP customers in Canada, a number expected to grow in the coming decades.
Canada became a global case study in the risks of the emerging Internet phone world last year when an 18-month-old baby died in Calgary after an ambulance was mistakenly dispatched to the wrong city. Dispatchers could not discern the location of the dying baby's frantic parents, since Internet phones aren't affixed to a physical address as home phones are.
Instead, VoIP companies keep a special emergency address on file. Although the family had updated its billing address to Calgary, neither the company nor the family changed the 911 address, resulting in the ambulance being sent to their former home in Mississauga, Ont.
The CRTC wants to set up a database that would quickly cross-reference the Internet Protocol [IP]address of an online call with the home address of the Internet subscriber. Each computer connected to a network has a unique IP address, displayed as a string of digits.
The database would be guarded by privacy laws and would be accessible only by emergency dispatchers when 911 is dialled. By law, the database could not be used for other purposes, such as police investigations. Lawmakers can access IP address records now, but require a warrant first.
The CRTC has called for submissions from the industry on how the upgrade should proceed. Such improvements have been bogged down by arguments over costs and who should pay. Internet service providers, such as the big cable and phone companies, want the small VOIP phone companies to pay for any upgrades, and have argued that setting up a database could cost $250-million. The CRTC has questioned the validity of those claims and suspects they are being unduly inflated. The estimates "include little or no supporting detail and cover a very broad range," the CRTC said.