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Carriers win E911 delays

The FCC grants the country's leading wireless carriers more time to give emergency officials the ability to locate cell phone callers dialing 911.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday granted the country's leading wireless carriers more time, in some instances up to a year, to give emergency officials the ability to locate cell phone callers dialing 911.

The carriers include Nextel Communications, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless. AT&T Wireless and Cingular also won delays, but only for portions of their networks using a certain phone standard, according to the FCC ruling released Friday. The FCC's enforcement arm is mulling over possible punishments, which could include fines, against these two carriers.

The FCC has also delayed deciding the fate of smaller carriers, mostly in rural areas, which have not filed any waiver requests. The enforcement delay, however, is "only for a brief period of time," the FCC noted.

The delays allowed by the FCC don't push back the deadlines to have in place a system to locate 95 percent of those that dial 911 from a cell phone. That deadline is still Dec. 31, 2005.

Instead, the FCC granted delays for carriers to meet certain steps in the process. AT&T, for instance, was given a month more time to begin building its network. Nextel won the biggest of the delays. It was supposed to begin selling cell phones that are E911-ready by Oct. 1, but it now has another year to do so.

The first deadline in the complex, five-year series of steps was Oct. 1, and for many it meant the date that carriers had to begin building their systems. The deadline passed without a single U.S. carrier coming into compliance. Sprint came closest, however. On Monday, it began selling handsets that would work on the system, although it didn't have the network in place.

In its Friday order, the FCC vowed to keep a close eye on the carriers as they begin to work on the extended time schedules. According to the FCC, the carriers will have to start filing quarterly updates on their progress, beginning next year.

The waivers came with a stern warning from FCC Commissioner Michael Powell.

"I am disappointed and unsatisfied with the progress we have made," the commissioner said in a statement. "I know and respect that carriers have made concerted strides in this area, but those efforts must be redoubled. It goes without saying that there is a new sense of urgency around using mobile phones as important safety devices. They have become indispensable tools for calling for help and for delivering help.

"Thankfully, we are only at the beginning of the implementation of this process and not at the end."

Ritch Blasi, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless, said that the FCC has done a "good job in recognizing the technological challenges the E911 system posed." Representatives for other carriers were unable to comment.

This is the second time carriers have won delays from the FCC to implement the E911 system, which the FCC first demanded in 1996 after realizing police were able to determine the location of those dialing 911 from traditional landline phones using software on the telephone network, but they could not locate those using cell phones. Instead, emergency operators had to ask questions, which delayed rescue efforts with sometimes-fatal results.

The FCC originally set a 1998 deadline for carriers to begin building their E911 systems. That was delayed until Oct. 1, 2001, because the technology was not available.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was the only commissioner opposed to granting the requests. He saved his harshest criticism for carriers Nextel and Verizon.

Nextel, he notes, said it won't even begin selling phones with the appropriate hardware to let police know where a cell phone caller is located until Dec. 2002. The carrier also said it will wait until 2004 to make every phone it sells compliant with the FCC directive, Copps noted.

That leaves Nextel two years behind carriers Sprint, AT&T and Cingular, which now have promised the FCC that every phone they sell by Dec. 2002 will be compliant with the E911 system.

Verizon also indicated it will continue to sell phones that won't work on an E911 system until December 2003. That's a year later than Sprint promised, even though both companies will be using the same technology. Verizon won't have some hardware placed into its telephone networks until March 2003.

Nextel has told the FCC it is relying on Motorola for the phones and network hardware, which Motorola said is delayed in shipping. Verizon has told the FCC that it's original E911 technology failed, and it had to switch to the Motorola gear as well.

"The country cannot afford to go down (this) road," Copps wrote. "I hope instead that carriers and manufacturers will not seek further extensions."

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who supported the waivers, wrote "while I am disappointed....(a) denial would not lead to the miraculous introduction of equipment by manufacturers or any other silver bullet solution."