Your Smart Speaker is a Dunce

You can use your smart speaker to play music, tell you a joke, and even make phone calls. But you can't use it to call 911. That's not so smart, is it?

More than 25% of US households are smart-speaker equipped, about double the number a year ago. And 40% of those households have more than one smart speaker. They can be used for all kinds of tasks, including calling cell phones and land-line phones. But they can't call the 911 emergency number.

That seems like a major oversight. Calling your Uncle Fester for a chat is well and good, but wouldn't it be more important to be able to call 911 and report an emergency? The problem is that calling 911 isn't so simple. After careful examination, you will note that the phone number “911” is clearly different from most phone numbers such as “012-345-6789.” In the same way that “Cher” or 'Madonna” is a special name, 911 is a special number.

Calling 911 is complicated. In particular (you can skim this paragraph because it's boring), 911 was designed in the '60s to operate with circuit-switched land lines. 911 calls are routed separately from normal call processing, to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). PSAPs must fulfill certain tasks, such as be able to access callback information and caller location. When wireless calling was developed, location could only be approximated according to cell tower location. The FCC changed its regulations and also required PSAPs to modify their equipment. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls posed still more problems because they are independent of caller location. Yet another issue are Multi Line Telephone Systems (MLTS) centralized calling systems (such as a campus or high-rise building) that do not report caller location. To emphasize, without reliable location information and callback ability, calls could be misrouted. For example, would you like the police to mistakenly break down your door at night to provide emergency assistance because the system reported the wrong address?

Smart speakers are not like other phones; they do not have assigned phone numbers; there is no consistent means for a 911 dispatcher to call back the speaker; they do not have the ability to report a GPS location. Finally, considering that there are more than 6,000 PSAPs, most operating with local and state budgets, who should pay for the upgrades to existing equipment, or new equipment, that would inevitably be required? Speaking of costs, 911 smart-speaker users would have to pay a monthly fee, just as they do for all 911-compatible phones.

The 911 system is regulated by the FCC as well as state and local boards. For now, the FCC is apparently busy dealing with 911 issues such as posed by MLTS systems. Coordinating smart speakers with 911, apparently, is not on the docket.

Amazon Echo and Google Home would dearly love to add this feature, and tout their device's ability save lives, but it simply can't be done, at least not for now. (Occasionally, there are reports that a smart speaker called 911 and saved a person's life, but apparently those reports are false).

So, because of technical entanglements, as well as regulatory issues, when you try to use your smart speaker to summon help, your smart speaker is suddenly quite dumb.

On a serious note, it's important to remember, once again, that these smart speakers cannot currently call 911. If you have given such a speaker to an aged parent, for example, and consider it as an emergency item for them, clearly it is not.

John_Werner's picture

Yes, it's a dunce because it seeks for us to serve it. Give up those valuable marketing demographics that Neilson (sp?) ratings could never approximate in accuracy. What do you get in return? A song played with a little less effort? A movie found so you can open your wallet? The smart speaker is the ultimate "DEVIL'S RIGHT HAND" for corporate America...not to mention the government which will have it's way no matter what we seem to do. Yeah, the internet, the whole of our electronic devices, and our naivete have allowed Satan to use the information age as his vehicle. I say do the Office Space dance on all smart speakers and read books using your laptop sparingly. LOL! Really just practice safe audio and go 2-channel analog!