Working Under Pressure
By Andrea Orr, Tue Sep 04 00:00:00 GMT 2001

The mobile industry is finding itself hard-pressed to meet the requirements of the US government's E911 initiative on time.

While it can make life a lot more convenient, having the latest technology is not usually a matter of actual life or death. But lawmakers in the U.S. are worried that some people could die for lack of a better technology for tracking the location of cell phones.

Some people already have.

Earlier this year a Miami, Florida woman drove into a canal and dialled 911 for emergency assistance on her cell phone while her car slowly filled with water. Unable to get out of the car, or to tell dispatchers her whereabouts, she died before help could reach her.

In Rochester, New York, a female college student was recently abducted from a shopping plaza and raped. Although she was carrying a cell phone and managed to call 911, the operators had no way of knowing where she was and could only listen to the attack while desperately trying to find her.

There are many other stories as well. Drivers make wrong turns or run out of gas in unfamiliar neighborhoods late at night, call for help, then, while on the phone discover an assailant approaching the car. Unless they can provide their exact address, the operator on the other end is unable to help.

The need

Often, car accidents occur and an injured person's life hangs in the balance as they wait for help. And in some parts of the country fake bomb threats persist, police believe because they have no way of tracking down the individuals making the calls.

The Federal Communications Commission saw a crisis looming five years ago and mandated new rules requiring that wireless operators adopt technology for locating cell phones. Now, with the Oct 1, 2001 deadline around the corner, none of the major wireless carriers have a solution in place.

In cities across the country, emergency call centers are also scrambling to make their own systems compatible with the new technology. But even those that have upgraded, like the center for the city of San Francisco, say they will be unable to offer the promised new location services because the wireless carriers are not ready.

Carriers like Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, are blaming the software vendors for failing to develop an accurate and affordable new product. The software companies, such as Allen Telecom Inc's Grayson Wireless division, insist that they have the new technology ready. But they say no one has jumped to buy it.

The reality

The bottom line? Locating cell phones after October 1 will be almost as difficult as it was before the deadline.

"There's a lot of finger pointing going on," said Woody Glover, of the U.S. Association of Public Safety Officials. "The carriers maintain that they can't offer the service if there is not the technology out there that meets the FCC requirements and the people offering the technology say that it does meet the requirements, but no one is ordering it."

While some companies report being close to a solution, consultants and others familiar with the issue say they would not be surprised for the year to end with the entire country out of compliance with the rule, which requires emergency call centers be able to locate cell phones within roughly 100 yards.

"The technology was supposed to be in place by October 1, 2001, however that is not going to be reached by most, if any, carriers," said Sonya Carius, a spokeswoman for the National Emergency Number Association or NENA.

"It is now expected to be implemented on a large scale within the next four years -- which is a long time when you are talking about people losing their lives."

There are two main ways of complying with the new mandate. Carriers can sell new phone handsets with built-in chips that would enable automatic location. Or they could develop a network solution based on a system called triangulation, in which the radio waves from the phone are tracked to the three nearest cell towers and the location is narrowed down accordingly.

Triangulation is generally believed to be less accurate than a handset-based solution, but would still be better than any of today's current technology.


One problem with the upcoming rule, however, is its complex requirements for exactly how precise the new technology needs to be.

The rule is generally referred to as a 100-meter requirement. Specifically, however, it states that for handset-based solutions, carriers must be able to determine a caller's location within 50 meters for 67 percent of all calls and within 150 meters for 95 percent of all calls. Network-based solutions must be able to find a location within 100 meters for 67 percent of the calls, and within 300 meters for 95 percent of the calls.

These specific requirements laid out have provided both the technology vendors and the wireless providers fuel to claim the other side has not completed its share of the work. Verizon, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S. and the latest one to seek an extension, maintains it will offer the handsets - just as soon as some technology is available. A spokeswoman for Verizon said the company still has not seen any technology that meets the requirement.

AT&T Wireless Services, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS, Alltel Communication and VoiceStream Wireless have also sought similar waivers. Most say the technology they have tested can get no closer than 250 meters. Cingular Wireless, for instance, said one solution it tried could only locate a phone within 750 meters. That would be fine in a wide-open field, but with so much cell phone use in dense city areas, there are concerns that emergency workers would be challenged to find a caller, even within a 100-meter radius, especially in a skyscraper. No one really believes the rule should be relaxed.

Still, regardless of how fine-tuned today's automatic location technology is or is not, it seems fair to say that foot-dragging is also partly to blame for the deadline not being met. In fact, the looming October 1 deadline is actually just the second phase of the FCC's rule, and wireless operators were supposed to have been working toward a solution for years.

In 1999, there was a deadline for the first phase of the rule; requiring emergency operators at least receive a return phone number when they received a call from a cell phone. That rule also came and went with virtually the entire country out of compliance. Now as the Phase II deadline approaches, carriers are just beginning to install Phase I solutions in some parts of the country.

A step in the right direction, but only a small one, say critics.

The Association of Public Safety Officials, which is pushing to have the latest technology adopted as soon as possible, maintains it has seen as many as 20 companies that have built systems that meet the required accuracy.

Grayson Wireless is one of them. It recently announced that it had successfully tested a system, in conjunction with TeleCommunications Inc. that would be able to locate callers and automatically route the information back to the emergency call centers.

From Silicon Valley, Andrea Orr covers developments in the mobile world for TheFeature. She is also a correspondent for Reuters in the Palo Alto, California, bureau.