Lawmakers urge progress on wireless 911

Now that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have led to a heightened focus on improving the country’s emergency response systems, the need for enhanced 911 telephone systems that can pinpoint the location of wireless callers has been bumped up lawmakers’ priority lists in Washington, D.C.

But most of the wireless industry missed an Oct. 1 deadline to begin rolling out such services, putting widespread adoption predictions in the 2005 time frame.

At a hearing held Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, senators urged representatives from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the wireless industry, and emergency call centres to make enhanced 911, or E-911, a top priority.

The hearing was originally scheduled to take place on Sept. 11; instead the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., served to illustrate how dependent U.S. residents are on both wireless communications and emergency response teams.

“The whole country is forced to reorder its priorities after Sept. 11,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. “I’m calling on the wireless industry to reorder its priorities, set its sights higher … and beat its deadline. Public interest in this country will be well served.”

According to Thomas Sugrue, chief of the FCC’s wireless telecommunication bureau, there are 120 million wireless subscribers in the U.S., and most public safety answering points receive between 30 and 50 per cent of incoming calls from wireless phones.

But the missed Oct. 1 deadline doesn’t bode well for an accelerated E-911 schedule. That date was the deadline for carriers to begin implementing Phase II of E-911, in which they must upgrade their networks with technology that can specify a caller’s location within 100 meters or less. Six major wireless carriers – Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint PCS Group, Verizon Wireless Inc., AT&T Wireless Services Inc., VoiceStream Wireless Corp., and Cingular Wireless LLC – received waivers from the FCC allowing them to miss the Oct. 1 deadline.

Many carriers cited a dearth of available location-detection telecommunication equipment, such as switches, as a reason for delaying services. Manufacturers of such equipment are not within the FCC’s jurisdiction, Sugrue said, but added that the agency is launching an inquiry into the supply situation. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, said that some major telecommunication equipment manufacturers declined invitations to take part in Tuesday’s hearing.

The FCC granted waivers to the six wireless companies because each carrier detailed plans for beginning phase-two implementation by hitting a number of milestones during 2001 and 2002, Sugrue said. Carriers that don’t meet these incremental milestones will be subjected to the FCC’s enforcement bureau.

Both he and Thomas Wheeler, chief executive officer of the industry association Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said they believed carriers would meet the Dec. 31, 2005 deadline for completing rollout of Phase II.

Wheeler took the opportunity of having the Senate committee’s ear to push for congressional action on a related matter: spectrum caps. Currently each carrier can only occupy 45Mhz of spectrum in any given market. Carriers are already bumping up against that limit; if E-911 becomes ubiquitous, even more wireless calls will be traveling through the airwaves.

“We’ve been asked to do more with less, to provide more connectivity with less spectrum,” Wheeler said. Lifting the spectrum cap is the quickest way to allow more calls to go through, he added.

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