Its not clear if wireless enhanced 911 systems could have helped rescuers reach people injured at the World Trade Center or Pentagon, but the disasters may spur development of ultrawideband applications that could help in the future.
Carriers are considering two location systems. One uses global positioning satellite technology, the other is a network-based process that uses triangulation to determine location. But experts say theyre not sure either would have worked in the hours after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"The reality is, its unclear today whether or not if youre buried under 50 tons of rubble your GPS handset would work. Given the obstruction of [cellular] towers, its unclear if network-based solutions would have performed," said Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate communications for TeleCommunication Systems, which provides a component of E-911 systems.
Ultrawideband technology may be more effective. Developed by the military, UWB gear emits pulses of energy that make it exceptionally good at "seeing" through walls and other objects. While there are a number of potential applications for UWB -- transmitting data or tracking mobile workers for the enterprise, for example -- the potential uses for search and rescue are among the most intriguing.
UWB can pinpoint users more precisely than other E-911 technologies. "We talk about one centimeter of accuracy," said Vincent Coli, vice president of Aether Wire & Location, one of a handful of companies that have been developing devices that use the technology.
Large corporations have met with Aether Wire to discuss applications that incorporate UWB chips into employee badges. The technology could store worker identification information and also enable e-mail or phone calls to be forwarded to the phone or terminal closest to the employee, no matter where the worker is on a corporate campus.
"If you take that a step farther, in the event of an emergency, you know whos in the building," Coli said. In addition, in an emergency, rescue workers could carry tracking devices that could precisely locate the badges. Inquiries about Athers products for firefighters jumped shortly after the attack on Sept. 11, Coli said.
Time Domain Corp., another developer, received a grant from the Department of Commerce to research UWB tools that could be used to aid emergency workers. Firefighters, for example, may arrive at a burning building without knowing its layout and get lost inside. If they were wearing UWB devices, they could be tracked.
In addition, because ultrawideband chips can both receive and send communications, devices can be programmed to relay information back to a command center, said Jeff Ross, Time Domains vice president of corporate development.
Such products havent yet been completely developed, mainly due to lack of funding. "Its a shame that the reason a lot of this hasnt been done is because we dont have the money. I think thats going to change after this week," said Coli.
But deploying applications based on ultrawideband doesnt come without kinks. Time Domain has talked to some wireless operators about incorporating UWB in handsets for E-911 location. However, the chips in the phones have to communicate with access points that are fewer than 30 meters away.
One way to set up such communications links is to use the wireless devices themselves to receive and send information. "A lot of it revolves around the concept of ad hoc mesh networks," Ross said. The drawback is users still must be within 30 meters of another user or an access point.
There are also privacy concerns. "I dont believe privacy will ever go away as an issue," Zenk said. "The protection of privacy is as essential today as it was before the disaster."
Vendors and carriers are keenly aware of user privacy issues and are taking steps to address those. SignalSoft, an E-911 wireless location product developer, offers a mobile phone application like this for personal use.
Such an application could have been used by people in New York to let loved ones know they werent near the WTC, without tying up precious voice lines.
The Federal Communications Commission has instructed wireless operators to deploy systems able to locate callers within about 100 meters by Oct. 1. Carriers are mulling what technology they can use to meet the mandate. The commission originally said the technology should be in place by Oct. 1, 2000.