Wireless Carriers Secrecy Causes Static for Enhanced 911 Service

The E911 service is supposed to help emergency workers find callers. But wireless carriers' reluctance to share data on how accurate their location services are is frustrating public safety officials.

WASHINGTON—Claims by wireless carriers that some basic characteristics about their network performance are proprietary threatens to keep emergency workers from aiding victims in a timely manner, said speakers at a panel in the Hart Senate Office Building here Tuesday.

The panel, presented by the E9-1-1 Institute, reported on the state of Enhanced 911 services for wireless users. The news from both sides generally wasnt good.

Industry representatives said that efforts to meet Federal Communications Commission requirements for E911 support have been hampered by a lack of specificity in the commissions rules. They said that some rules are so vague that they have been left having to guess what the commission has in mind.

In one case, according to a report from the E9-1-1 Institutes board, a portion of the rules are in conflict to the point that it is impossible to determine whether carriers are required to certify their compliance with the FCCs E911 rules twice a year or every two years.

Worse, emergency service providers said that carriers are making no effort to present data, such as the identification of callers and their location, in a standardized way, meaning that emergency workers are forced to guess what information they are being given.

Perhaps the worst problem, however, is the refusal of wireless carriers to divulge the accuracy of the position information provided to emergency services. "Theyre really worried that the press will get the information and use it," Nancy Pollock, executive director of the Metro 911 Board for Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., told the panel. "There are no guidelines for the quality of the data we receive or the accuracy of the data."

Pollock noted that while the wireless carriers are required to tell the FCC that they meet the commissions E911 requirements, they are not required to report how well they do.

When a wireless caller makes an emergency call, the call is supposed to be transferred to the emergency operations center in the jurisdiction where the caller is located. That emergency center is supposed to receive a report on the actual position of the caller, so that the emergency responders know where to look for the caller and so the response can be tailored to meet the actual need.

But when the actual location isnt known, then the response must be much larger because the caller must be located before they can be helped. Responders have no way to know whether the caller is located at a specific intersection, for example, or simply that theyre in some general area of town.

/zimages/3/28571.gifTeleCommunication Systems, a major E911 service provider, recently acquired a location software company. Click here to read more.

While the location technology does make a difference—GPS-equipped devices can be located more accurately than those where triangulation must be used—even thats not enough information. Different carriers are more able to pin down an exact location in some places than others, and emergency workers need to know that information to respond properly.

The problem is, the wireless carriers wont provide the information.

"There needs to be sharing of information," Pollock said, adding that requests for accuracy data from the carriers has been refused. Pollock dismissed the concerns of carriers. "If we cant locate callers, isnt that going to hit the press, too?" She added that wireless carriers are worried that their competition might find out how they each performed and use that for marketing leverage, suggesting that consumers would want the one thats best.

"The public has a right to know this information," Pollock told eWEEK.com in a subsequent interview. She then asked, "When your baby isnt breathing, how big a concern do you think this would be?" It makes no sense for emergency workers to be searching for the victim instead of going directly to where help is needed because location information was not accurate enough, she said.

Pollock acknowledged that even with good accuracy data, there would still be problems. Wireless technology that cant use GPS currently, such as GSM used by AT&T, Cingular and T-Mobile, must rely on triangulation, and the best that can be is a circle of about 150 yards across. However, another attendee, Tim Lorello from TeleCommunication Systems Inc., a major provider of E911 services, said GPS capabilities for GSM devices will be appearing within the year because of requirements in Europe, where it is the wireless standard.

Still, even with GPS, its impossible to know how accurate the position reporting is for any given wireless carrier because they wont divulge the information. "Every time we hit a roadblock such as the accuracy problem, we take two steps back," Pollock said. "This is a real travesty." Pollock pointed out that at some point, PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) personnel will be forced to do their own accuracy measurements, with unpredictable results.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...