Agencies urge rollout of wireless location service

In anticipation of the Oct. 1 deadline, three U.S. public-safety organizations last week urged the Federal Communications Commission to stop granting waivers and extensions to cellular communications companies that would allow them to miss the long-mandated start date for Enhanced 911 wireless location services.

The agencies said the FCC should hit carriers that miss the deadline with “serious penalties” for non-compliance.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent heavy use of cellular networks, as well as jury-rigged automatic location systems in New York have made it difficult for the FCC to grant new waivers for a system that it first envisioned in 1996, said Jim Goerke, wireless implementation director at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) in Columbus, Ohio.

The Sept. 11 attacks have helped focus attention on the importance of having a system that can determine the location of people who call 911 on cell phones, Goerke said, adding that the cellular carriers “have had a lot of time to get this together.”

While the FCC has not indicated how it will act, analysts expect it to take a strong stand. The chances of continued leniency by the commission “are about equal to everyone being a winner in Las Vegas,” said Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md.

The technology isn’t perfect, but it does exist, said Reiter. The cellular industry has been engaged in “legal stalling,” a tactic that won’t work in the post-attack world, he said.

NENA, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International Inc. and the National Association of State 911 Administrators, a NENA affiliate, told the FCC in a filing on Sept. 21 that the terrorist attacks require the commission “to move as quickly as possible to implement fully accurate location capability for the nation’s wireless users.”

Goerke said that based on his reading of the FCC’s emergency-communications files, only two of the major carriers Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless and Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless Services Inc. are even close to meeting the requirements.

Technology Options

Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington, said that although the cellular industry “has been working diligently for a number of years” to meet the deadline, the technology to make the system work isn’t yet available.

The FCC has mandated that the carriers choose either an automatic location system that uses Global Positioning System (GPS) chips in receivers enhanced by back-end processing systems, or a network-based system that uses sophisticated triangulation from nearby cell towers to locate a handset.

The FCC wants carriers using a handset system to provide location accuracies to within 50 metres for 67 per cent of all calls and accuracy to within 150 metres for 95 per cent of calls. Carriers using a network system must provide accuracy to within 100 metres on 67 per cent of calls and to within 300 metres for 95 per cent of calls.

The deployment of automatic location systems will be costly. Diane McCormick, director of investor relations and a spokeswoman for Allen Telecom Inc. in Beechwood, Ohio, estimated that a nationwide rollout of location technology could cost US$1 billion to US$3 billion.

Carriers that have opted for the handset system said they have had problems getting the base-station equipment to upgrade their networks. Sprint PCS Group said it has run into problems with its two major equipment suppliers, Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies Inc. and Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Corp.

Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint told the FCC in a filing on Sept. 20 that it planned to start selling GPS-enabled phones today and that it will sell GPS-equipped phones exclusively as of Dec. 31, 2002.

Goerke said he understands the issues carriers face in upgrading their networks but also wonders if their problems and delays are a matter of timing. The FCC should use its investigatory powers to determine whether equipment problems are the result of delayed orders, said Goerke.

“If I were the government, I would fine the carriers each a million dollars a day until they comply with the FCC location mandate,” said Reiter.