Call 911!

Will your cell phone get you help when you need it?

If you bought a cell phone to get help in an emergency, you might be out of luck. That’s because 911 dispatchers won’t be able to find you unless you can tell them specifically where you are. Unfortunately, most people don’t keep a running map in their heads between locations, and 911 centers need more information from cell phone users than those on a land line.

But a recent FCC ruling might change this. Maybe. According to the FCC mandate (FCC Report and Order of June 12, 1996, docket 94-102) wireless phone service carriers are required to upgrade their technology to provide Automatic Location Identification (ALI) service by October 1, 2001. But that mandate is not likely to help many wireless phone users for years to come.

WHAT’S THE HOLDUP?
Some wireless carriers say they plan to be ready. “We’re working toward an October deadline,” says Jennifer Walsh, spokesperson for Sprint PCS. “We want to work with [the FCC] and help make this happen.” (At press time, however, Sprint had filed for a waiver, citing “vendor delays and other factors” in its request to the FCC.) Many other providers have also filed for waivers of the October 1 deadline, and it’s no wonder: The expense of upgrading wireless carriers to either a multiple-tower triangulation (“network”) system, or to a GPS-type system that locates the user by satellite is staggering. Bill Dyer, director of new ventures within the Network Applications division of Alcatel, USA, which will provide equipment for upgrading wireless carriers, says for a large carrier to deploy across an entire network, the cost is in the hundreds of millions to a billion dollars. “The network-based triangulation technology generally runs $20,000 to $30,000 per cell tower,” Dyer says.

Even if every carrier complies on time by preparing the technology, it will take time for customers to upgrade their phones to use it. Under the GPS system, customers will have to replace phones at the cost of the new phone plus approximately $5 to $20 for GPS circuitry. “Carriers aren’t looking to replace all their phones,” says Dyer, “but the new phones will have the circuitry. It will still be five-plus years before you see full penetration if a carrier is using GPS.”

Under the triangulation system, the carrier is only required to comply with the new technology demands 12 months after the Public Safety Answer Point (PSAP, or the emergency center you call), requests it. “Out of about 4,800 PSAPs in the U.S. today, only about 1% have requested [compliance by the wireless carriers] to date,” says Dyer.

As for the cost of the carrier upgrades, it will likely be passed on to consumers somehow.
Log on and learn
For more information on this topic, check out the following sites:

  • Federal Communications Commission (www.fcc.gov)
  • National Emergency Number Association (www.nena.org)
  • National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (www.npstc.du.edu)
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