In a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) released last week, the FCC sought input on the state of 911 capabilities in office and other enterprise environments (Enterprise Communications Systems, or “ECS”). The FCC expressed concern about continuing reports of several difficulties in accessing 911 services through ECS, including:

  • Lack of direct 911 dialing – e.g., a requirement to dial 9-911 to dial out to emergency services.
  • Lack of ability to route calls to the closest Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).
  • Failure of some ECS networks to provide PSAPs with detailed information about the caller’s location.

In its NOI, the FCC requests feedback on why ECS 911 capabilities appear to lag behind those of other telephone networks. In particular, the FCC intends to identify hurdles to full ECS 911 implementation, determine consumer expectations when placing these calls from ECS environments, and settle on the appropriate federal regulatory response to expand routine and consistent 911 access.

The NOI begins with an explanation of how ECS evolved from large-scale internal voice communication systems to today’s advanced IP-based networks that often integrate SMS/MMS support as well as a variety of other communications technologies. Due to highly-customizable implementations available via ECS, consistent standards and 911 protocols have not always been maintained. As a result, commercially available ECS networks may not always be equipped to provide the detailed information that is available to emergency services when calls are placed through other types of networks.

In its 2003 E911 Order, the FCC concluded that ECS users expect to have access to 911 services to the same degree that they would if using any other telephone system. However, at the time, the FCC determined that ECS regulations were best left up to states, which the FCC observed could be better positioned to assess the needs and capabilities of local PSAP services.

The NOI discusses several measures that have been implemented at the state level since 2003, including direct dialing mandates and requirements that precise location information be conveyed to PSAPs. It highlights potential state actions, including that Maine is considering amending its ECS rules to require any public or private entity that operates an ECS to ensure that 911 can be dialed without any prefixes. New York is also considering a direct dial requirement.

The NOI seeks clarification on the current state of ECS technologies and input on a range of technical questions about several categories of stakeholders, including ECS operators, vendors, and subscribers. In particular, the NOI seeks information about how quickly ECS providers have switched to IP and internet-based technologies, asking about the proportion of circuit-based ECS versus IP-based systems and adoption of cloud technologies in the offering of ECS services. Among other questions, the NOI asks the following questions:

  • What types of calling features and media types beyond voice do ECS vendors offer that could support multimedia 911 communications?
  • To what extent are ECS operated by enterprise owners versus hosted by third-party service providers?
  • Are there additional data on the number and frequency of ECS-originated 911 calls?
  • Do PSAPs track ECS calls separately from wireline, wireless and VoIP 911 calls? How frequently do ECS 911 calls get routed to a non-local PSAP or a backup center?
  • How many entities operate ECS where service footprints may extend across city, county, or state lines and/or service multiple locations or campuses, potentially making information collection more challenging?
  • Are there data about 911 calls placed from settings frequented by more transient occupants, such as hotels, airports, or educational institutions?
  • Does the availability of broadband service affect the deployment and reliability of IP-based ECS?
  • What is the impact on E911 connectivity of teleworking arrangements in which an employee working at home uses ECS equipment or services provided by his or her employer?
  • Will an increase in broadband access likely lead to an increase in the deployment of ECS?
  • To what degree do ECS enable and support direct access to 911, routing to the correct PSAP, and the provision of accurate location information about the end user?
  • In the case of an office building or multi-unit dwelling, should ECS provide the precise location of the office or apartment from which the ECS call was made?

The FCC seeks input on how well-developed any industry standards are for ECS, and how widely implemented and effective such standards may be. In addition, the FCC asks for information on how ECS provider contracts are typically structured, and what type of transitional objectives might be useful in moving towards full ECS 911 implementation. The NOI asks how large a difference 911 availability would make in first responder reaction times and outcomes during emergencies.

Finally, the FCC requests details on the accuracy of its prior conclusion that states are in the best position to adopt ECS 911 regulations. The questions indicate some concern that ECS providers may not be adopting advanced 911 capabilities in states that have not mandated them. The FCC seeks input on what, if anything, it should do to address these gaps.

This NOI could have significant implications for ECS and cloud service providers, enterprise customers, and operators of other facilities using ECS, such as multi-unit dwellings. At this stage, it remains unclear which measures the FCC may ultimately propose in a future rulemaking process or the bottom-line cost that providers and customers might face in implementing such measures. Nevertheless, the FCC adoption of this NOI remains an important development for ECS providers and customers.

Comments on the NOI are due on November 15, 2017, and reply comments are due on December 15, 2017. After that, the FCC will determine whether to proceed with a rulemaking on the issue, at which point stakeholders will have another opportunity to weigh in on proposed rules. Drinker Biddle will continue to monitor these developments and update readers as events warrant.