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Future of 911 to include mulitmedia communication

Plans underway to improve technology over next decade

SAN ANTONIO – When some cellphone users had trouble dialing 911 this month, it wasn't the first time officials knew there were problems with the service. It is likely the most obvious sign to consumers that something has to change.

And it will.

The original version of 911 was created in 1968. It's only been in the last 14 years that the technology has slowly transitioned to internet-based.

"In a lot of cases, the equipment that we're using is end-of-life; the manufacturers in some cases don't even exist anymore," said Dr. Walt Magnussen, director of Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center at Texas A&M University. "With older technology, not only does the equipment get old, but the people who really know how to use it are retiring."

Researchers at Texas A&M are among those working on what's called NextGen911 - the future of emergency calls.

"It's technology based on open internet standards," Magnussen said.

But there's no rush to make the improvements.

"People that run the 911 networks — from the cell service providers and from the 911 call centers — everyone takes their jobs very, very seriously. They understand lives are in the balance here and a technological glitch could possibly cost somebody a life," Magnussen said. "That's one of the reasons the transition is taking so long."

It's not as easy as flipping a switch. Magnussen said there has to be a transition that would integrate the new network with the old network to keep emergency calls from being dropped.

NextGen911 is expected to allow callers to dial, text and send video when they need help.

It could also improve location services. Currently, the call-takers can see a general address of the caller. In the future, it's hoped the location will be more specific. For example, a caller today who needed help inside a high-rise building would only be found by address. Improvements would lead help to the specific floor of that caller.

Another issue being looked at is the problems with connectivity in emergencies where large groups of people may be trying to make a call at the same time.

"You always have to keep in mind the fact that when bad things happen across a wide area, cell networks get congested, and when they get congested, you don't get connected," Magnussen said. "No service is 100 percent guaranteed."

Magnussen said the Federal Communications Commission is eyeing 2024 to begin implementing NextGen911. In a high-paced world, that may seem like a long time.

"When things happen in the public-safety world, they do happen slower, but they happen slower for a good reason," Magnussen said.

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