Wireless industry under order to locate 911 callers
Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ People who keep cellular phones handy in case of an emergency might be in for a surprise: The person on the other end of that 911 call can't locate you by homing in on the signal.
Wireless carriers face a fast-approaching government deadline to add this capability to their systems, but some companies are pressing regulators for more time to complete the costly overhaul. Federal officials warn they will have to present a strong case.
Public safety officials say they can't wait any longer.
``There is a public expectation that people can be found if they make a 911 call from their cell phones,'' said William Hinkle, director of the Hamilton County communications department in Ohio. ``We are concerned about any additional loss of life.''
About 45 million Americans made 911 calls from their wireless phones last year, according to Hinkle, who works on the issue for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. In some areas, cellular 911 calls make up 50 percent to 70 percent of the call volume coming into safety centers.
Without location information, public safety officials say they are leaving those in emergencies at greater risk. In an oft-cited case, a Florida woman died after her car sank in a canal off the Florida Turnpike in February. She dialed 911 but couldn't tell the operator where she was.
In another case, a man driving in Greensboro, N.C., suffered an allergic reaction to a bee sting. He dialed 911 from his cell phone but passed out before he could give an exact location. Public safety officials figured out where was because they heard the sound of a siren in the background.
When a person punches 911 from a traditional wireline phone, personnel at the answering center see a screen that displays the number of the caller, what street that person is on and even a map where that home is located.
But people using cell phones are on the move and their number doesn't correspond to a fixed address. Some wireless providers can now provide location within broad ranges, from city blocks to miles in rural areas, and callback numbers.
To target a more precise location, they need to add new technology; the least precise option would still give public safety personnel location information that is within about 328 feet of the caller 67 percent of the time and within about 984 feet 95 percent of the time.
In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules setting Oct. 1, 2001 as a deadline for implementing this capability. No major carrier has yet to do so on a widespread basis.
Some wireless operators, including AT&T Wireless and Nextel, already have asked the FCC to push back the deadline. Other major carriers say they are on track to meet the date but add that they don't have control if equipment makers or those supplying the technology fall behind.
The FCC warns that companies will have to make a compelling case for a reprieve.
``I think it's going to be tough to get a waiver,'' said Jim Schlichting, a top wireless official at the commission. The government could even fine phone companies that don't comply with the date, he said.
Wireless companies only have to offer the capability once a local answering center asks for it. That means public safety operations must upgrade their facilities.
Companies can meet the mandate by adding location technology to their networks or to the handsets that consumers carry.
For carriers that select the latter option, including Verizon Wireless, Cingular in some markets and Sprint PCS, consumers are likely to have to buy new phone models to make it work.
The industry's top lobbying group say companies want to enhance phone safety features but must make sure the systems and equipment are ready to go.
``This is brand new technology. It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world,'' said Travis Larson of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. ``It takes time and effort to integrate it with the existing system.''
Wireless executives point out that they have a strong profit incentive to add location technology. It opens the door to vast potential commercial applications.
For example, using location technology, companies could send wireless coupons for a sale as a cell phone user walks by a store or offer traffic updates for a driver in a specific area.
But the most attractive application still is the ability to use that phone in an emergency, says Oliver Hilsenrath, chairman of U.S. Wireless, which has developed a wireless location technology.
``Everybody wants public safety today,'' he said. ``That's why people say they buy cell phones.''
Hilsenrath predicts that once the first wireless companies begin offering 911 location, consumer demand will force other carriers to add it.