FCC, the United State’s Federal Communications Commission, has presented plans for a next generation dispatch telephone system. The new system, part of a project called Next Generation 911, or NG‘911, will be able to receive more incoming connections than standard phone calls. A change from a circuit-switched system to an IP-based system will allow for SMS (text), MMS (photo and video), and video calls to be received at public safety answering points (PSAPs). The motivation behind the project is threefold. Benefits of the new system would include improved access for people with disabilities who would not normally be able to communicate over standard voice calls. Another proposed benefit is that more information about an emergency could be acquired from photos and videos. Rich media is intended to be used to assess emergencies more quickly and respond more effectively. The third benefit would be the flexibility and improved resilience that comes from a IP-based system compared to a circuit-switched system.

I find this to be a really interesting move from the FCC, and it also raises several important questions. SMS emergency services already exists in several countries, on of them being England. This has been an important step in making emergency services accessible for a large part of the community that would not otherwise be able to communicate with emergency services because of disabilities (or malfunctioning hardware).

One important issue that this initiative raises is how we communicate over video calls. When 3G networking was initially rolled out 10 years ago video calling was standardized using 3GPP in the 3G-324M umbrella protocol . Handset manufacturers had to implement this standard in order to support video calling. The 3G video calling trend did however not last long, but it had a huge adoption in groups with speaking or hearing disabilities. Manufacturers soon started to limit the amount of handsets with front-facing cameras and video capabilities when the interest from the public failed to show. As the computational power grew and mobile operating systems became more competent more and more features became add-ons to the handsets in the form of applications (or apps), and video calling moved from being a native service to becoming an app.  In the mid 00’s Fring and other video calling services was launched for the Nokia mobile platform, and it didn’t take long before the race had started for the definitive mobile video service. Today we have a large number of services for video calls, the problem is them being exclusive instead if inclusive. Apple does not support native video calls but uses it proprietary service Facetime, and Google is going down the same route with Google Talk video calls on Android handsets. Because of Microsoft’s purchase of Skype it is likely that it will become the standard for video calls on Windows Phone platforms.

This time the question is not about mechanisms for gaining market share and lock-in mechanisms. Now we are in a situation where the market leaders rules over standards, and the big questions is, will we ever again see a common standard for video calls being implemented again, and what would it take for that to happen? NG’911 currently supports the 3G-324M standard, but what standards or services should be support in the future? I believe that this to be an important question that needs to be asked while planning NG’911.

More on this issue at TGDaily and FCC.