Five Fundamentals for the Phone Network, Part 5: Public Safety

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This is the final post in our series explaining Public Knowledge’s five fundamental principles for the transition of our phone network to IP-based technology. We’ve already discussed service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, and network reliability. Today we’ll dive into the last (but not least) of the five principles: public safety.

At this point most U.S. residents take for granted that they will be able to rely on the 9-1-1 system to call for help during an emergency. The public interest benefits of 9-1-1 service are fairly obvious—this is, after all, one part of the phone system that involves literally life-or-death situations. Regardless of the progress of the phone network upgrade or future market trends, one thing is clear: a person’s ability to call for emergency aid when they need it most cannot depend on whether the network that person uses is wireless or wireline, copper or fiber, or utilizing TDM or IP technology.

During the transition, the main goal for public safety should be to make sure that the network continues to help emergency communications reach their intended destinations quickly, and to seek out ways that the newer IP-based technology can enhance 9-1-1 or other emergency services.

This means that, for example, we must ensure that alarm systems and alarm system standards that rely on access to a traditional “telephone line” to function won’t be needlessly disrupted when the lines begin using newer IP technology. And in addition to maintaining the continued functions made possible by the traditional network technology, we must seek out opportunities for IP-based technology to help more users reach emergency responders more easily, quickly, and efficiently.

On the federal level, the Commission has already begun looking to the future of our public safety protections with the Next Generation 9-1-1 transition. It’s important, though, to consider public safety in the broader context of the network upgrade.

When we consider new capabilities made possible by IP technology, we must think through what impact those functions will have on the other fundamental principles underlying the network. For example, geolocation technology that helps emergency response to 9-1-1 calls made from mobile phones necessarily impacts consumer privacy. As we move forward with the transition, it’s crucial that we take time to think through these issues and make any necessary trade-offs between values thoughtfully and deliberately.

It’s exactly this tendency for particular issues to impact multiple fundamental values underlying the phone network that makes it crucial for us to create a solid, principled framework to guide us through the transition of the phone network. As each new issue, challenge, or opportunity arises, we can then use our framework to evaluate all of the potential benefits and consequences.

At the end of the day, the values we hold to most firmly will be the ones that guide and inform the decisions we ultimately make. The transition of the phone network promises to be extraordinarily important and amazingly complex. If local, state, and federal regulators hope to guide this transition in a way that will create the best possible results for users, they must establish a framework of fundamental principles that will help them navigate the waters as we move deeper into the transition.

Public Knowledge will continue following this issue and advocating for consumers based on the Five Fundamentals we’ve outlined in this blog post series. The phone network’s technology may be changing, but our social needs and goals remain the same.

Click here to sign the petition supporting a universally affordable, reliable, and available phone system regardless of the underlying technology.

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