A More Resilient Next Generation 911 Network?


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The Ark-Tex Council of Governments hopes a satellite-based alternate path will keep 911 running smoothly during natural disasters like earthquakes that could sever terrestrial fiber lines.

The Ark-Tex Council of Governments is eyeing a September launch for its satellite-enabled Next Generation 911 system, intended to withstand call center power outages and network crashes that doom single-threaded communications.

ATCOG serves nine counties in northeast Texas and one in southwest Arkansas, and NG 911 embodies the national effort to overhaul local 9-1-1 systems so they can receive data and calls from text and video messaging services.

Terrestrial-only fixed and mobile cellular networks can facilitate NG 911 systems, but they can also be disabled during natural disasters—making satellite networks a more robust plan B.

“ATCOG is merely adding an additional network with a diverse path to ensure network resiliency,” wrote Mary Beth Rudel, ATCOG public safety manager, in an email. “[T]he goal is to see a seamless transition between networks when issues with the primary T1 network arise.”

That the T1 network is primary won’t change, but there’s a growing recognition nationally that dropped 9-1-1 calls endanger lives. Municipalities and, in some instances, states are shelling out for NG 911 technologies.

Otherwise, something as simple as a worker accidentally severing a fiber line could have serious repercussions.

“They don’t want to be in tomorrow’s paper for a network failure resulting in adverse outcomes,” said Tony Bardo, Government Services assistant vice president at Hughes Network Systems, in an interview. “They don’t want a loss of confidence from their citizens.”

Germantown, Maryland-based Hughes provides satellite-based communications services and is helping ATCOG ensure its jurisdictions’ dispatchers and call handlers don’t have all their 9-1-1 eggs in one basket.

NG 911 systems can also quickly field and transfer calls, and the alternate satellite paths acts as “network insurance” jurisdictions may never use or need but should always have, Bardo said.

In the event a call center is shut down, 9-1-1 calls can be rerouted via satellite to different, staffed areas.

“This idea of single-threaded communications is troublesome,” Bardo said. “Some agencies are spending a lot of money to duplicate terrestrial communications coming down the same path.”

He recommends localities first identify critical sites they really want to keep up and running.

When states or localities are planning their next contract, that’s when companies like Hughes can meet with officials to discuss a network strategy.

ATCOG’s project was initially procured in August 2015, and the body was on track to have the necessary hardware installed by December of that year. But initial testing that month revealed 9-1-1 network requirements were going to be a challenge for what Rudel said was the first implementation of satellite broadband for a 9-1-1 network.

“We had multiple vendors and agencies working together to make the two systems communicate effectively,” Rudel said. “We were set to complete our final testing and turn up the system in May 2016, but ATCOG had some primary network issues that required immediate attention.”

Testing has since resumed and wrapped Wednesday, paving the way for a September launch.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington D.C.

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