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Is Wi-Fi the answer in emergencies?

Intel thinks the wireless technology could do what most so-called E911 technologies can't: work well inside buildings, where cell phone coverage is usually poor.

Intel thinks Wi-Fi is a key to pinpointing a cell phone's location.

The company's Emerging Platforms Lab is developing a new software and hardware package for wireless carriers that will add a Wi-Fi network to all the various ways of locating a cell phone, Bob Hills, technology marketing director at Intel's Emerging Platforms Lab, said this week.

The work could help 911 call-center operators determine the location of a cell phone; currently they can pinpoint only where a landline call was made. Carriers are trying to meet a 2005 deadline to make it possible for the operators to locate cellular calls, but most carriers are having trouble meeting the deadline.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS are using assisted GPS (Global Positioning System), a version of the satellite positioning system that's aided by cellular antennas on Earth. It works well in rural areas but suffers in cities, where a satellite signal gets lost among the steel and concrete buildings.

Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile plan to use EOTD (Enhanced Observed Time Difference) technology, which uses antennas on Earth to find a phone. EOTD performs well in cities, where cell antennas are plentiful, but not in rural areas.

Hills thinks that adding Wi-Fi, which create a 300-foot zone of wireless access to the Internet, could do what most so-called E911 technologies now can't: work well inside buildings, where cellular coverage is usually poor. Intel is calling its developing product "Universal Location Framework."

This is one of several wireless initiatives that Intel has announced this week. The company's latest strategy for PCs, notebooks and handheld computers calls for wireless connectivity. Intel is also readying a PC card modem that will let notebook computers connect to wireless networks. Code-named Calexico, the card is due out in notebooks early next year.

Other companies are already using Wi-Fi, also known as 802.11b, as a location technology.

PanGo Networks' Proximity Platform, for example, uses Wi-Fi to locate items, Chief Executive Michael Campbell said. Key-ring-size tags broadcast the location information over a Wi-Fi network. Hotel kitchen staff use it to know when a room service cart has been pushed back into the hallway.

A cell phone with Wi-Fi and PanGo's software inside could use a nearby Wi-Fi network to dispatch a person's location when he or she dials 911, Campbell said.

As it stands now, if someone manages to get through to 911 from a cell phone inside a building, rescue workers would not be able to determine the location beyond the building's street address. Many office buildings now are dotted with Wi-Fi networks, so an emergency call operator could use a person's location, obtained through the system Intel develops, to pinpoint what floor the call came from.

"Application makers tell us that location-based services aren't good enough," Campbell said. He stressed that Intel's work is "very early on," so the technology likely won't be ready in time for the 2005 deadline.

Wi-Fi might prove to be a difficult addition to the technologies, said Cahners In-Stat wireless analyst Allen Nogee. "It wasn't built to provide someone's location," he said. "But it could help."

Some wireless carriers will use their 911 systems to sell new services, like AT&T Wireless' Find Friends, which finds people via cellular antennas. The most oft-mentioned "next big thing" for the emergency systems is wireless instant messaging that tells whether people are online and gives their location.

Carriers reached Tuesday declined to comment on Intel's work, not wanting to discuss a technology that they haven't seen.