Is GPS alone the answer for better E911?

If the CRTC wants to improve Canada’s wireless-enabled 911 services, the regulator should mandate carriers to develop hybrid location-based service networks, according to Polaris Wireless Inc.

Marty Feuerstein, CTO at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based wireless location technology firm, said that despite the public’s perception, GPS technology does not solve all location identification problems.

“There is a realization finally happening that wasn’t about four or five years ago, and that’s GPS doesn’t work indoors,” he said. “Sure, if you’re by a window, door, or in a single story wood home, it’s probably going to work. But if you’re in an office building in the city, it’s not going to work.”

The answer, Feuerstein said, lies in a blended system that utilizes the strengths of handset-based GPS with the power of network-based tracking technology. These technologies include real-time locating technologies such as TDOA (time difference of arrival) and Polaris’ own WLS (wireless location signature).

Polaris’ WLS is a software platform that uses radio frequencies to determine a mobile user’s location. To find this location, WLS uses measurements such as neighbour cell signal strength, time delay and other network parameters.”

“With some carriers, we’ve deployed this as the sole 911 solution,” he said, adding that implementation and operating costs are minimal. “There’s no GPS, no hardware in the bay stations, no radio network overlay. This is a software only approach.”

Using network-based software such as WLS in conjunction with GPS, Feuerstein said, would create a ubiquitous location tracking system.

But without clear and specific guidelines that mandate the type systems wireless carriers use, the adoption of new kinds of location-based service technologies could lead to more harm than good.

Feuerstein said that when public safety officials talk about consistency and accuracy, it means that they need to be able to trust the point on the map or address that shows up, whether it comes from Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. or Bell Canada Enterprises Inc.

“That’s not happening in the U.S. right now,” Feuerstein said. “Different carriers have different technologies and legacy systems.”

“What I’m told is that call takers at public safety organizations have a little sheet on the wall that tells them, ‘if you get a fix from such and such operator, don’t trust it, but if you get a fix from this other operator, you can trust it.’”

In the U.S., Feuerstein said, there has been an unwritten requirement that carriers need to conduct about five percent of their location tracking tests indoors. But with about 55 to 60 per cent of wireless calls now being made indoors, he added, the FCC is hoping carriers dedicate more time to resolving indoor tracking issues.

“Given the percentage of indoor calls, why not start with systems that can do indoor tracking rather than building something that can’t and trying to fix it later on,” Feuerstein said. “That’s the lesson that needs to be learned from the U.S.”

Whether Canada heads down a similar path remains to be seen, Feuerstein said, but some Canadian first responder units have certainly expressed their concerns.

According to a June report from research firm IDC Canada Ltd., emergency responder organizations expressed concern over the CRTC’s recently released E911 policy, citing the need for better adoption timelines and performance metrics. The policy will require Canada’s wireless providers to enter into Phase II of its E911 services plan, which is aimed at improving the accuracy rate of wireless 911 calls, by February 2010.

But the report’s author, IDC Canada principal analyst Lawrence Surtees, said that members of the public safety community will be surprised with the results.

“Some important elements have been deferred to a second stage of Phase II,” Surtees told ComputerWorld Canada last month. One issue that has been deferred to an unspecified stage is whether or not roaming mobile users will be location traceable by emergency response units.

Other concerns included the lack of performance metrics for location-based services, the percentage of mobile phones in Canada that are up-to-date on Phase II E911 location capabilities, and the CRTC’s deferral of mid-call location updates for 911 callers who are on-the-move.

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