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I’ve been waiting for this sort of an article to emerge. Surprisingly little blame has been cast upon the wireless carriers after the terrorist attack last week who have failed to meet the 911 safety objectives set forth by the FCC two years ago.

Those safety objectives could have averted the loss of lives or reduced the casualties arising from the hijackings as frightened passengers called loved ones and 911 to report the crisis. If they had been on pace with their launch of telematics, perhaps wireless carriers would have provided the key information that the Air Traffic Control system could not by locating and identifying the missing aircraft.

The requirement specifies that carriers develop a solution to allow pinpointing of mobile telephones to within 110 yards. This was as a result of growing pressure that emerged from a 911 call from a rape/murder victim who called in but died at the scene of the crime before the police could find her.

Carriers have spent the last two years in blissful ignorance of reality as they pursued (but never demonstrated) the pipe dream of triangulating signals between three towers (AT&T can’t even connect you consistently to ONE tower let alone three) and the mobile phone handset.

Now they’ve arrived at the conclusion that any rational individual could have arrived at, which is to say that proper location-finding is only possible with the help of GPS — this means that every phone has to be replaced before the solution is universal.

Now, as the deadline approaches, a wireless system whose brittle backbone is being crushed under the weight of its own traffic and its general mismanagement can’t even keep calls up or deliver CallerID reliably. Now, carriers are begging the FCC and PUCs for an extension to this deadline.

But isn’t two years quite a long time to solve such a problem?

In my opinion the carriers should be made to pay a fine for every day they remain in arrears. They clearly can’t solve the problem without assistance, and perhaps the fines should be steered towards 3rd-party research geared toward solving the problem — the solution for which would be imposed upon them.

Maybe the blamethrower should be pointed at regulatory bodies — who created no impetus for a solution to this problem until high-profile stories such as the rape victim emerged. Also, as soon as they ordered wireless carriers to deliver telematics the PUCs relaxed the requirements for pay-phone coverage which alleviated some of the burden for safety that was being carried for decades by the RBOCs.

Needless to say it’s boldly apparent to everyone but the parties involved that there is not much hope of a solution to the telematics issue in the near future — and until there is safety will be compromised by dwindling pay-phone coverage and the lack of any coherent solution from wireless carriers.

The irony is that the crisis has sparked a surge in mobile phone purchases in the US, apparently as a result of peoples’ perceptions of mobile phones as a safety device. In reality, you’re better off crawling around until you find a pay phone.

-Ian.

—– Attacks Give Urgency to Wireless 911 Fixes

StarNews.com – September 19, 2001

Last week’s terrorist attacks might spark improvements in the nation’s wireless 911 system and its ability to find people calling for help on their cell phones, state and county officials say.

“It’s put more of a focus on this issue,” said Indiana Treasurer Tim Berry, who is chairman of Indiana’s Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board. The board met Tuesday for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Starting Oct. 1, the nation’s cellular phone companies are supposed to be able to locate wireless 911 callers within 110 yards and relay that information to emergency dispatchers.

Cell phone companies, though, have asked for an extension, saying they don’t have the ability to meet the requirements set by the Federal Communications Commission.

Several wireless carriers had hoped to come up with a way to locate callers through their networks of towers and other equipment. Now they’re saying the requirements can be attained only with new technology in the phones themselves. And it will take years to replace all the phones currently in use. In Indiana alone, there are 1.8 million cell-phone subscribers.

The best technology available in Indiana gives dispatchers only a vague idea of a caller’s location, along with a callback number.

The good news, Berry said, is that 25 Indiana counties have upgraded their emergency communications systems so that beginning Oct. 1, they should be able to receive enhanced location information. The bad news is that cell phone companies aren’t able to send that information yet. Marion County is in the midst of an $850,000 upgrade to its system that by Dec. 31 should enable its dispatchers to automatically receive a caller’s location.

Cell phones took center stage during last week’s tragedy as passengers on the four doomed airliners called loved ones.

Will the public’s renewed focus on public safety energize the industry and public safety officials to push harder to deploy new technologies?

“We don’t know yet,” said Kenneth Lowden, director of Steuben County Communications and a member of the state wireless board. But Lowden predicted that in the next few weeks, there will be a definitive word whether improvements can be made quickly or whether consumers will have to wait.

Just as Republicans and Democrats have become more cooperative in Washington, the antagonism between carriers and public safety officials has declined, said Chris Ternet, an adviser to the treasurer.

“Perhaps what we’ll see is a coming together on this issue,” Ternet said. Contact Doug Sword at 1-317-327-4484 or via e-mail at doug.sword [at] indystar [dot] com

© 2001 Indiana Newspapers Inc. All rights reserved.

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