June 4, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Homing in on a plan for cellular 911
Cellular companies need to provide more accurate information to police and firefighters who are trying to locate people calling 911 from mobile phones, according to the FCC. But exactly how to measure compliance and achieve this goal is still up for debate.
Last week, the FCC said it would seek public comment from the industry and public safety organizations on several issues that it believes could improve the accuracy of what's known as enhanced 911 service, or E911.
One proposal, supported by the FCC, would require cell phone operators to measure the accuracy of their location technology in smaller geographic areas. The commission is also looking at requiring mobile operators to use a hybrid solution that combines both GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite receivers in handsets and network-based location technologies to help pinpoint the location of callers.
The FCC said all accuracy requirements would also apply to voice over Internet Protocol services, such as Vonage, that allow people to move their service to new locations.
The new proposals, which if passed could cost the cell phone industry a lot of money in network upgrades, have stirred debate among cell phone companies and organizations representing public safety entities. While all agree that improving the accuracy of e911 is important, they disagree about how to measure its effectiveness and how to actually improve it.
"We understand and support the chairman and commission's efforts to improve location accuracy; we share that goal," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for the CTIA, an industry group representing the cell phone industry. "As part of that effort, we look forward to educating the commission on the state of technology, its limitations, and what can and cannot be accomplished now, and how to move forward in the future."
Emergency dispatchers can easily trace people who call 911 from a regular telephone. But that's not so easy with cell phones. People calling 911 from a cell phone could be anywhere. And relying on a caller to provide location information to a dispatcher is unreliable and puts callers at grave risk.
The FCC estimates that of the 200 million calls made to 911 each year, a third of them are from callers using a mobile phone. In many communities, more than half of 911 calls are placed from cell phones. Many people have come to depend on their cell phones, which they almost always have with them, in times of emergency. In fact, roughly 29 percent of people who bought a cell phone in the past year said they did so for emergencies, according to a Consumer Reports survey.
"With so many people using cell phones as their primary telephone, it's important to make this issue a priority," said Patrick Healy, a spokesman for the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, a group that promotes 911 research, planning, training and education.
More than a decade ago, the FCC mandated that wireless operators would have to provide E911 capabilities to at least 95 percent of their subscribers. At the end of last year, about 70 percent of the nation's 6,140 call centers had implemented the final phase for E911, according to NENA. These call centers cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population. But the Rural Cellular Association claims that only about 25 percent of rural emergency call centers have implemented location services for E911.
While some regions of the country are still working on E911 capabilities, some industry experts say the accuracy of these services is still a problem. At last week's meeting, FCC commissioners expressed concern that emergency responders may not be able to find callers due to poor location information.
"A call to 911 is among the most important calls that any of us will ever make," said Commissioner Michael Copps. "Just consider the example of first responders focusing an exhaustive search for an injured caller on the ground next to 300 meters of highway--only to learn, too late, that the victim was actually 1,000 meters down the road."
The FCC already requires carriers to test their location systems and be able to pinpoint callers within certain distances. But carriers have been allowed to test their equipment and average the results over their entire national service areas or within a particular state, which means that good results in one region could skew the average, producing misleading data.
"Multistate or statewide averaging can mask the reliability of 911 outside of large urban areas," said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. "For example, meeting location accuracy standards on average in the entire state of New York by providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo."
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