Blue Line

Cutting the cords

February 3, 2015  By Tom Rataj

The communications landscape continues to evolve, with traditional service providers like telephone, cable and satellite companies losing customers to newer generation paid and free services.

The most significant change is in telephony, where increasing numbers of customers are abandoning the traditional wired home and/or business phones in favour of newer and cheaper options or to eliminate duplicate services.

Many younger people, who grew up with cellular phones, forgo having a traditional wired home phone entirely, instead opting to use just their cell phone. This is driven by both convenience and economics; you’re always available so why pay for two phones when one can do everything for almost half the monthly cost?

Other people, both in the home and business environments, have opted for cheaper telephony by switching to Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems that use the Internet as the communications link.


Video conferencing services such as Skype, FaceTime, BBM and others also fit into this Internet-based communications model with the advantage of also working in the mobile space and anywhere in the world where there is an adequate Internet connection, either wired or wireless.

Satellite and cable TV services are also under pressure as many customers abandon these at-times expensive services in favour of either free Over-The Air (OTA) antenna-based television and/or subscription-based services such as Netflix, Rogers Shomi, Bell and Telus’s CraveTV and other streamed Internet content.

The changes to telephony can have negative operational implications for emergency services and public safety, while the free OTA television can, of course, benefit the bottom line.

{9-1-1 – What’s your emergency?}

One of the greatest advantages of traditional wired telephones for emergency services response is that Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) services can automatically identify both the physical location of the telephone and the subscriber’s name by using Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification (ANI/ALI) technology.

Callers to E9-1-1 don’t have to say anything to summon help because operators know exactly where the call originates. This functionality unfortunately more-or-less disappears with cell and VoIP services.

Cell phones can be located through several means, including GPS and triangulation, although it is not as precise as ANI/ALI, typically placing callers within 50-300m of their actual location.

Enhanced mobile 9-1-1 service (which require a GPS equipped cell phone) makes this information available in a fashion similar to wired E9-1-1. For phones not equipped with GPS, locating a subscriber requires assistance from the cell company, which uses triangulation between towers.

VoIP phones use the Internet as the communications link. There are two main types of VoIP service; fixed and nomadic.

Fixed VoIP generally occurs over a private dedicated communications link such as that provided by a cable service provider (such as Rogers) and provides the same features as E9-1-1 because it is tied to a specific location.

Nomadic VoIP occurs over any Internet connection, so the physical location of the phone is not automatically tied to the billing address of the subscriber. Typically provided by smaller independent VoIP service providers, this service allows customers to take their phone anywhere in the world, connect and use it as they would if at home.

The CRTC regulates all this and requires service providers to provide basic or E9-1-1 service and advise customers at enrollment, and at least annually thereafter, of the functionality and limitations of 9-1-1 when using VoIP. The customer must keep the physical location of the phone up-to-date with their service provider.

Text to 9-1-1 (T9-1-1) was recently introduced in Canada to support deaf, deafened, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired (DHHSI) customers. They must first register with their cellular service provider and have a compatible cell phone.

When they dial 9-1-1, the T9-1-1 compatible call centre receives an indication that the caller will be using texting to communicate.

Some police agencies, including the Toronto Police Service, are implementing VoIP phone systems to save money, particularly on long-distance services, as well as for other operational efficiencies.

{Modern rabbit ears}

When Canada followed the American lead and switched to digital television service in August 2011, the switch vacated portions of the 700MHz radio frequencies previously occupied by analog television. These frequencies, among the best for high-speed cellular telephony and mobile Internet, were then auctioned-off in spectrum auctions by the federal government.

Another benefit – 20MHz of the vacated radio spectrum was reserved for emergency services, offering the potential to greatly improve the quality, quantity and reach of mobile voice and data services.

What makes this frequency range very valuable and beneficial is its ability to penetrate buildings and other hard to reach places unreachable by other radio frequencies.

To receive the new digital HDTV signals, users need to install an antenna capable of receiving the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) signals on which most television signals are broadcast. The range is between 300MHz and 3GHz.

The most common UHF antenna type is the flat wire-grid style, although more traditional TV-antenna style HDTV antenna also work.

Dependant on market, some HDTV signals are still broadcast in the high-end of the Very High Frequency (VHF) band, which requires a different type of antenna. Hybrid antennae that receive both UHF and VHF signals are available for a slight premium.

For optimum reception, both types of antenna need to have a clear unobstructed path to the broadcast source.

Most large urban centres in Canada offer all the Canadian networks and several speciality channels, while those centres close enough to the American border can also receive all the American networks and specialty channels.

I switched from cable TV to OTA last year, installing two antennas and a combiner module. I receive 26 channels of mostly high-quality 1080i HDTV signals with picture and 5.1 stereo-sound quality better than the cable service I had.

Other than the initial hardware costs and the time to install the antennae and related equipment, my television viewing is now completely free (as opposed to $90+ per month for digital cable).

For smaller police agencies on a tighter budget, free OTA television may be a viable option for providing basic television services within their facilities.

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