July 19, 2001 5:00 AM PDT
Are police ready for wireless 911 calls?
The Federal Communications Commission told wireless service providers that by Oct. 1 they must offer police departments the ability to locate a cellular phone caller who dials 911. Currently, police can locate regular telephone 911 callers but can't do the same for mobile phone users.
With the October deadline less than three months away, less than 10 percent of the 4,300 police departments in the United States have the service up and running, according to a recent survey conducted by the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. The group represents many of the dispatchers answering the 911 calls.
Less than half of these same police departments, where one-third of the 911 calls are from cell phones, have even asked carriers to provide E911, or Enhanced 911, services to them, according to the survey.
In addition, 91 of 129 wireless carriers in the United States recently told an industry group that they "can't determine" when they will comply with the FCC mandate.
"There is not one thing to blame," said Woody Glover, director of 911 programs and communication center operations for the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. "Like anything new, it takes a lot of time to develop."
Although there still is time for the carriers and police to implement E911 services on time, the expected delays could affect more than public safety.
Many wireless technology and e-commerce companies hope to piggyback on the E911 systems to offer location-based information and services. Companies such as AirFlash, Cambridge Positioning Systems, Go2 Systems and SignalSoft are working to, for example, push content and coupons to consumers when they drive or walk by a shopping mall or restaurant. E911 delays could thwart these efforts.
As the clock ticks, the FCC is mulling requests from eight carriers, including AT&T Wireless, Cingular and Nextel, to push back the deadline. The FCC has already granted an extension to VoiceStream Wireless.
"Clearly, there's a loud and clear signal that most wireless carriers won't make it," said Mark Adams, executive director of the National Emergency Number Association, which represents the people that manage 911 call centers around the country.
The Oct. 1 date may have been misinterpreted as the day the service has to be in place, some say. Rather, it is a deadline for carriers to make the service available to the police, who then can implement the location-tracking technology when they are ready.
Many of the major metropolitan police departments are reluctant to talk about their progress, but Glover said that so far they are lagging as well.
An unofficial survey Glover conducted of members found that just half of the 911 call centers had asked carriers for the service. That number, especially so close to the deadline, is disappointing, he said.
"We hoped the 50 percent would be higher," he said. "The effectiveness of 911 is eroding as wireless phones (proliferate)."
Confusion about the varying phases of the program is one of the reasons for the sluggish police response. But another issue is money, or just how much this will cost departments, Glover said.
John Dolan, records and communications manager of the Foster City, Calif., Police Department, said the department is wrestling with many issues, including how to pay for the upgrades to its own call centers, in addition to the fees carriers will be charging.
AT&T Wireless may have eased the financial conditions last week. It had planned to charge public safety departments a fee of 11.8 cents for each cell phone in the calling area, regardless of whether the phone's user called 911 or not. But last week the company said it would no longer charge that fee. Glover thinks other carriers might follow AT&T's lead.
Dolan hopes the state of California is going to help pay for some of the upgrades.
There are also other concerns, like whether the new E911 feature is going to increase the workload for an already overworked dispatching staff, he said.
In addition to the police concerns surrounding E911, many service providers have balked at the mandates since their inception.
In 1999, carriers were supposed to have the system up and running to identify the precise location of wireless 911 calls to within about 50 meters to 100 meters for most calls. But carriers won a two-year reprieve that expires Oct. 1.
But it looks like that deadline will pass once again without service.
AT&T Wireless on Tuesday launched one of the fastest voice networks in the United States, a step toward the so-called third generation of always-on, high-speed, Internet-ready phones. But the same network doesn't yet comply with the E911 standards. The company, said spokesman Ritch Blasi, has asked the FCC to waive the Oct. 1 deadline. AT&T's target date for offering the E911 system is now March 2002, Blasi said.
BellSouth, which provides service to nine Southeastern states, is responsible for providing E911 to 836 police call centers. But a source familiar with the company's E911 efforts says BellSouth is lagging behind as well, partly because "everyone was figuring out what vendors to use."
Verizon has indicated that 20 police call centers are now E911 capable, with 15 more in the planning stages. But New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and six other states were listed earlier this year as still in the planning stages, according to Verizon.
"We are working diligently to meet the very aggressive time frame. We have not filed a waiver request, but we reserve the right to do so should we need to," a Verizon spokesman said.
But at least one analyst doesn't expect much of an outcry if the Oct. 1 deadline comes and goes without being met.
"People have had cell phones for the past 20 years, and this hasn't existed; we've lived without it," said Keith Waryas, analyst with market researcher IDC. "The world will not end; the sun will still rise and set. But we're getting to a point soon that so many people are having phones that it will begin to present a bigger and bigger safety problem."
News.com's Sharael Feist contributed to this report.