June 4, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Homing in on a plan for cellular 911

Homing in on a plan for cellular 911
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The Federal Communications Commission wants to make emergency calls on cell phones more reliable.

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."

CONTINUED: A hybrid solution…
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9 comments

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gps
dont cell phone already have GPS on them. used for chosing what cell tower or towers the cell phone uses.
Posted by mongoose13223 (2 comments )
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Re: gps
Some cell phones have GPS receivers, but these are used for positioning (especially for E911 use). Not all handsets have GPS, and GPS is not used for choosing a cell tower.

Tower choice is determined by signal strength (the handset uses the tower from which it receives the strongest signal). This is not 100% accurate, since the handset should give preference to towers belonging to its carrier for business reasons. However, given two towers of equal cost, the handset will most certainly connect to the tower with the best signal.

There are many factors that affect the signal strength between a handset and a tower. Distance is a significant factor, but shadowing (large objects like buildings or mountains between handset and tower) and multi-path fading (multiple copies of same signal interfering due to reflection) can have significant impact on signal strength. Considering the effect of these other factors, position is too unreliable a metric for choosing a tower.

Capacity can also determine the choice of tower. If the tower with the best signal cannot handle any more connections, the mobile will have to choose another, if possible
Posted by silenthorn (5 comments )
Link Flag
GPS and location tech
In a quick word, No. Not all cell phones have GPS and it is not used for deciding which tower to use. The actual strength of the cell phone signal is what determines the tower.

There are two location solutions. GPS and network. The GPS requires being able to get a signal from several satellites. Network needs at least three antennas for triangulation. The FCC is on the right path to require the use of both.

The author of the article was only partly right about the cost. It will be a lot. But, the cost to the cell providers may not be as great as most folks think. In many places the providers are given "cost recovery" from the local state governments; which means the actual cost for the deployment of whichever technology is used is paid by the cell phone users from the tax on their phone.

Many state legislatures, in an effort to be seen as lowering taxes, are cutting the cell phone taxes. Another reason they don't tax the same as a wired phone is their view that a cell phone is a add-on luxury to a wired phone at home or the office; which is already paing the 9-1-1 tax. They have no clue there is a large percentage of folks who have only cell.

The cost recovery issue is going to be the thing that will virtually stop the program in many states. The states simply won't be able to afford it everywhere.

In my county there are about 200,000 people. 85% live in 25% of the county. It is an area replete with street signs and reasonable means of identifying the location. But, the area where the technology is most important the 75% that is rural and sparsely populated; and every hill looks alike.

The focus in the nation has been on the more populous areas.

If the FCC is going to mandate, they should also establish a funding method to accomplish. And make it something the state lawmakers can't tinker with.
Posted by GEBERWEIN (75 comments )
Link Flag
more orwellian overtones
So the wireless industry would like to give authorities a better location of our daily activates, conveniently through the smokescreen of ?better emergency response?

How long do you think it would take for a smart upstart to mine all that location data for some privatized use?
Posted by krunkandjunk (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
E911 fees
What happen to the E911 fees we been paying that the cell phone company says it's "mandated" that they collect the fees?? Where have all those money went? In the pocket of all the big boss??
Posted by busterbunnytech (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Yeah, we have the technology
but can we afford it?

Thinking of the bozo that stepped down from aT&T with a $33 Million golden handshake, I wonder if he was really worth it?

As one who bailed out of Ma Bell years ago after 10 years seniority, I rather doubt it.

But haha, reading another Cnet story on how Chinese managers and CEOs earn significantly less, American companies could find not only tech jobs being outsourced, but their own.
Posted by NoVista (274 comments )
Link Flag
Costs incredible
In March a very small two position Enhanced 9-1-1 center, located over 100 miles from the switching server, cost total of $163,000 for equipment, installation and dedicated network.

The entire state network administration office (including the big boss' salary) is less than 2% of the amount of the tax collected.

The money goes into the network operation, equipment maintenance and upgrade to keep the system current with technology. Entire new networks had to be built to accommodate the wireless and VoIP technology demands that are erupting with volcano like force.

By the way, on my phone I can turn off the GPS for all but 9-1-1. So much for Orwell.

If this is taken out of the tax relm and not funded by the feds we can kiss any location or network goodbye. THe local politicos won't fund a dime. If they won't buy new phones for the local cop shop, what makes anyone think they will fund a calling network.
Posted by GEBERWEIN (75 comments )
Link Flag
Location not as pervasive as you might think
The CDMA networks (Verizon & Sprint primarily) already use GPS
in their handsets. AT&T primarily uses a network technology,
but accuracy is not good. Both solutions have been in place for
about 10 years, since the original FCC mandate.

Problem is, it doesn't work in certain places like densely
populated areas, inside buildings and other places where people
regularly make 911 calls.

A good blog about this <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.e911blog.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.e911blog.com</a>
Posted by karneson99 (1 comment )
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