Net Neutrality Debate Threatens 911 Emergency Services

While the net neutrality debate rages on across the blogosphere and peeks its head out again in Washington, D.C., much of the United States remains either ignorant of net neutrality or ambivalent. A recent poll conducted by Google Consumer Surveys showed that roughly 57 percent of Americans felt they "do not know enough about net neutrality" to make a decision in support or opposition (Google, 2014).

Those who do feel informed enough to make a decision support net neutrality rules, but not by a very large margin. While I will not hide my bias towards supporting net neutrality legislation, I will say that the arguments largely proposed for supporting net neutrality misses the bigger picture - critical infrastructure.

I would like to address the first of multiple pieces of critical infrastructure that are dependent upon the Internet and its equal treatment of information. These vital services are in the crosshairs if net neutrality is undermined.

How Net Discrimination Impacts Vital Services

We needn't resort to scare tactics to identify how net neutrality can and will harm general Internet services. The concern is quite simple - if Internet carriers can offer a fast lane to the highest bidder, services that cannot afford the fast line will be relegated to a higher-congested, rarely-upgraded, under-performing network. The "freemium" version of the Internet will suffer. However, this seems perfectly acceptable, especially to our legislators, if the Internet were only about uploading pictures to Facebook, catching a moving on Netfix, or chatting on Twitter.

The reality is that the Internet today is used to deliver many vital services, not just the latest meme-generating social media site. Among these vital services is phone service. Consequently, the demise of net neutrality would impact 911 emergency services in two distinct, critical ways.

Home and Business VoIP Services

The first and most obvious impact would be upon home and business users of Voice-over-IP services. Whether you use Vonage or Ooma or the IP phone provided by your Internet provider, your phone calls are passed over the Internet rather than through traditional analog phone services.

By 2012, over 33 million households in the United States used Voice-over-IP technology and the latest report from the FCC indicates that upwards of 47 percent of residential U.S. voice service customers use Voice over IP. The FCC is quite aware of this growth, and has had to deal with its integration with 911 in the past through various regulations. What seems to have missed hitting home is the relationship between net discrimination (ie: the alternative to net neutrality) and Quality of Services (QoS) for emergency calls made via VoIP lines. This issue has seemed to slip through the cracks.

IP-Enabled 911 Call Centers

Unfortunately, the demise of net neutrality would mean double jeopardy for many as the call centers themselves modernize and deploy IP telephony. There is no doubt that Voice-over-IP solutions and cloud call technology for 911 call centers is the right move for many 911 providers across the country. In fact, the National 911 OKce at the request of Congress came to this exact conclusion in 2009 in their "National Plan for Migrating to IP-Enabled 9-1-1 Systems."

"Because these outmoded networks cannot provide the public with access to 9-1-1 services from newer technologies and devices, 9-1-1 networks and call centers must change. Based on recent technology assessments by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and others, it was concluded that IP-enabled systems provide the optimal technical solution for future 9-1-1 networks."

Many districts, such as Durham, North Carolina, have already begun the transition to IP-Enabled call centers, potentially revolutionizing the way emergencies are handled without the limitations of outmoded analog technologies. For example, handling voice, data and text are now within reach. City after city, county after county, state after state are adopting the National 911 Office's recommendations, but are walking into a huge new trap: the unraveling of net neutrality.

Call centers of this size will have to either have to bid against highly profitable businesses like high speed traders for the access to the fast lane, or they will be relegated to degrading infrastructure. Not only are home VoIP users impacted, but everyone calling in - whether from a landline, a cell-phone or from VoIP technology.

Would the End of Net Neutrality Really Affect Phone Service
This is a fair question and should be answered without the standard anti-telco assumptions regularly made. According to the same recent report by the FCC, 38 percent of VOIP services are not provided by the incumbent telephone provider. There is just more competition in the VOIP space than in traditional land lines. It would be in the financial best interest of carriers who also offered VOIP service to relegate competing services to lower tiers and charge fees for usage. While this would likely end up being litigated to death, any degradation in service, even in the short term, unwittingly risks lives.

Moreover, it is unlikely that the carriers already have in place sufficient QoS to guarantee prioritization of VOIP calls, especially to emergency services, even if they wanted to proactively carve out special exceptions for these types of critical services. To avoid the potential negative ramifications of net discrimination, they would actually have to invest in prescriptive measures, an investment they might not like to make.

The Three Options Before Us:

As I see it, our leaders have three options.

  1. Let net neutrality fail and put at risk these vital services.
  2. Let net neutrality fail but try and carve out exclusions for as many vital services as possible, surely leading to round after round of lobbying over what deserves exclusion.
  3. Keep the net neutral.

In the next few weeks, I hope to outline several more types of vital services that are at risk if net neutrality is undermined. From the education of our children to providing veterans with health care, we depend on the Internet far more than any of us often realize.

Our forefathers clearly prioritized our rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Net neutrality has far too often been described as merely protecting our happiness or, perhaps, our liberty. In this global age, without Net Neutrality, our very lives are threatened.