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Those marvellous computing devices we clutch in our hands 20 hours a day called smart phones can do amazing things — call around the world, carry books, photograph things we want to buy, make videos of loved ones and so on.

Skilled hackers can turn on the microphone and cameras remotely, perhaps even with the battery removed.

The one thing it can’t do well, however, is let emergency responders know where you are.

In an article for GigaOM, Peter Rysavy of Rysavy Research goes over the current state of technology in light of a decision by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require carriers to provide more detailed caller location information than police, fire and ambulance services get now.

Specifically, the commission wants agencies to be able to know a horizontal location within 50 meters of the caller for 67 per cent of  indoor 911 calls placed from indoor environments within two years of the rule being set, and for 80 percent of indoor calls within five years.

Providers would be required to provide vertical location information within 3 meters of the caller for 67 percent of indoor 911 calls within three years of the adoption of rules, and for 80 percent of calls within five year years.

This isn’t an ambitious standard, Rysavy notes — 50 meters is the length of a football field. Not only that, but existing wireless technology can’t satisify it.

But, he argues, high-density Bluetooth-based beacon technology might be the solution. Beacons — such as ones being used in Toronto at the Rogers Centre — are starting to be used for consumer applications, he notes. But they would have to be widely deployed, and have special circuitry in smart phones.

“Beacons are configured to know the address and can quickly provide it to a phone, even if the user has Bluetooth turned off. When a user makes a call to 911, the dispatcher can still send help to the correct location because the beacon provides the phone the location.”

Beacons could be placed as low-cost standalone devices, within routers or set-top boxes, in overhead lighting or in emergency-exit signs and link to nearby Wi-Fi arrays, Rysavy says. New-building codes could require their installation. 

“But creative thinking will be required to make beacons a reality since they require an infrastructure separate from the cellular network,” he adds. “With so much at stake, including our lives, we owe it to ourselves to do everything possible to make this superior wireless 911 approach a reality.”

How viable a solution is this? Beacons requires the installation of new equipment virtually everywhere to be a success. The FCC approach encourages handset makers and carriers to collaborate on a solution within a device everyone already wants to have — a smart phone. True, a precise in-device solution doesn’t exist yet. But the power of the FCC to influence industry trends by demanding a standard is undeniable.

I’m not sure a beacon solution is the right way to go, but I welcome your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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