April 19, 2004 4:37 PM PDT

Big problems for small cell phone carriers?

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About 90 rural cell phone service providers missed last week's deadline to introduce a system for emergency workers to find cell phones dialing 911, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

An FCC representative said Tuesday that it's unlikely the agency will immediately take any enforcement action, preferring instead to bring the issue up at a meeting of the FCC's Enhanced 911 Coordination Initiative at the end of April.

Tim Raven, executive director of the Rural Cellular Association, said the association is not planning any immediate action, including asking the FCC for more time for its members.

"We have passed along to our specific members that if there was a problem and they couldn't comply with the E911 rules, they needed to work with individual counsels and file individual waiver requests," he said.

Traditional landline phone providers have offered E911, or enhanced 911, for years. The service has been credited with saving lives. Often, someone calling 911 is disconnected or the caller is too panicked to mention their location. E911 ensures that the address of the caller is available to the emergency operator.

Difficulties meeting the E911 mandate deadlines is nothing new to carriers. Major U.S. cell phone providers, including Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless at first backed technology that failed to meet the requirements. They had to switch to new technology midstream, creating delays and missing several deadlines.

The FCC, acknowledging the trouble smaller carriers might have meeting an expensive mandate, gave carriers outside 100 major U.S. markets a year longer than major U.S. carriers to meet the mandate. As the October deadline approached, a large group of rural carriers won another six months of time.

While major carriers have since expressed confidence in their technology, some rural carriers say they will likely continue to have severe problems.

Rural Cellular, which sells cell phone service to about 6 million people located in rural areas in 14 states, recently raised "serious concerns" whether it could, as required, locate phones within 50 yards about 95 percent of the time, according to one of its recent FCC filings.

The reason has to do with the makeup of rural cell phone networks. In cities, base stations and cell towers are plentiful, so finding enough to help "triangulate" the position of a call is easy. But in rural areas, cell phone towers are basically set up in straight lines. There is equipment that can help augment the measurements, but it's been very difficult to work with, Rural Cellular said.

"We now have real data from deployments which shows that call accuracy is falling short of the FCC mandated requirements," Rural Cellular told the FCC.

 

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