Cell phone 911 geolocation slowed by obstacles

Monday, October 28, 2002

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Engine problems stranded two men on a boat in the Atlantic one recent afternoon. They could see land but had no idea where they were. So one called 911 on his cell phone.

The men were lucky to be along the coast of Rhode Island, where emergency operators have more power than most of their counterparts in America to help people calling from wireless phones.

An operator instantly received the boaters' precise latitude and longitude and passed the coordinates to the Coast Guard, which picked the men up safely before dark.

This is not heroic by comic book standards, but it's an ideal moment in the world of public safety. It's also how wireless 911 calls are supposed to work everywhere.

Six years ago, the Federal Communications Commission ordered phone companies to make it possible by 2005.

But while about half of 911 calls come from cell phones -- a percentage that increases every year -- meeting the FCC's demand for callers' location information has been excruciatingly difficult.

The required upgrades -- to mobile phones, wireless networks, landline systems and the nation's 7,000 emergency dispatch centers -- are so complicated that only 1 percent of U.S. counties have the advanced level of wireless 911 service enjoyed by Rhode Island.

Several places are scheduled to reach that level soon, and FCC officials and phone companies say the 2005 deadline is still attainable. But it probably will take a more efficient and cooperative effort.

"We need everyone sitting around the table at the same time," said John Melcher, president of the National Emergency Number Association, which represents 911 answering centers. "So far, the (landline phone companies) have not been at the table."

Creating the technology

But some phone companies blame wireless carriers for delays.

For years, 911 operators have been able to instantly see the address of someone calling from a landline. When the FCC mandated location information for cell phones, technology to make that happen didn't exist.

The FCC set two stages. First, it required wireless carriers to give emergency operators the caller's number and the location of the transmission tower carrying the call.

But largely because many 911 centers aren't equipped to receive the information, fewer than half of the nation's counties have the so-called Phase One service, according to the emergency association.

Phase Two, which began last year, requires wireless carriers to give callers' specific latitude and longitude, give or take a few dozen yards.

Some carriers do it by having network equipment triangulate a caller's location; others are relying on Global Positioning System (GPS) chips in new cell phones.

In fact, the chips already are in more than half the handset models offered by Sprint PCS, one of the carriers furthest along in the Phase Two rollout. The chips are activated only when a 911 call is made.

The challenge lies in relaying location coordinates through the wireless network and into the traditional landline system, which carries emergency calls into 911 centers. That requires overcoming the varying connection standards and databases employed by different phone companies.

The 911 centers also must upgrade computers and switching equipment so their operators can see the location information. Then each center has to be connected separately by each wireless carrier -- a time-consuming process that requires technicians from different phone companies to perform tests together, often in the middle of the night.

When it works, emergency officials say they can respond faster and more decisively.

A prankster in St. Clair County, Ill., a district just east of St. Louis that has Phase Two service, recently used his cell phone to call in a bomb threat, then reported the phone stolen. Dispatchers tracked the original call "right to his front lawn, and he confessed," said Norm Forshee, St. Clair County's 911 coordinator.

But snags have cropped up at nearly every imaginable step:

-- Though much of the cost of enhancing wireless 911 -- which could exceed $1 billion -- will be covered by phone-bill surcharges and government funding, not all financial details have been worked out.

BellSouth has angered wireless companies by suggesting they cough up 11 cents every time one of their customers makes a 911 call that transmits location information. BellSouth contends the charge is necessary because of complications in the connection between its network and a database used by wireless carriers.

-- To make some networks handle incoming position information, wireless carriers have to add a small antenna to their transmission towers. Doing so requires permission from zoning agencies or landlords, which isn't automatic. For example, wireless carrier T-Mobile complained in an Oct. 3 FCC filing that Salt Lake City had denied a necessary authorization.

-- Ideally, location information should be transmitted several times during a wireless 911 call for an accurate reading on someone in a moving car. That technology is still being fine-tuned.

Lagging equipment upgrades remain the biggest obstacle.

Even Rhode Island's pioneering system, which required $1.4 million worth of new equipment at the state's lone answering center, is still a work in progress.

Executive director Raymond LaBelle is asking lawmakers to grant $4 million for software that will instantly translate location coordinates into street addresses and photos of the spot in question.

"We're not perfect," LaBelle said. "But we're getting there."

On the Net:

Emergency association: http://www.nena.org

FCC on wireless 911: http://www.fcc.gov/911/enhanced

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: