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Locating cell phone callers indoors

The FCC is asked to require that police and telecommunications carriers be able to locate cell phone callers inside large structures.

Motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Federal Communications Commission was asked Tuesday to require that police and telecommunications carriers be able to locate cell phone callers inside large structures, including subway stations, office buildings or schools.

The request comes just a week before United States carriers have to begin introducing a way for emergency personnel to pinpoint, within 100 yards, the location of a cell phone caller dialing 911. But the system that carriers have to begin installing Oct. 1 only determines the position based on longitude and latitude, not the person's height above sea level.

That will leave a gaping hole for police trying to find people calling for help inside buildings, notes, a wireless industry group that produces the VON Conferences and publishes reports on the wireless industry.

"The systems are very effective in pinpointing the location of 911 callers on the road in open environments where high location accuracy can be achieved," Jeff Pulver, chief executive, wrote to the FCC.

"However, only poor accuracy is to be expected for emergency calls coming from the interior of large buildings, subway stations and other large steel and concrete structures. Sadly, the need for improved indoor tracking was clearly demonstrated during the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, at the New York World Trade Center."

An FCC spokesperson was not available Tuesday morning for comment. Several carriers contacted Tuesday morning did not return calls seeking comment.

The request isn't without its own set of problems, sources within concede.

One dilemma is whether there is actually technology available now or in the foreseeable future that could make locating a cell phone caller indoors possible. The Global Positioning System (GPS) could help, say some analysts. In fact, this week, two European companies, Europlitan Vodafone and SOS Alarm AB, said they have developed an alarm for cell phones. A user hits the button and it sends an alarm to a call center, which will then use a GPS device to find the person.

But a source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said GPS devices don't work very well indoors. A user would have to be located within a few feet of a window to be located, the source said.

In Japan, emergency service personnel using an enhanced form of GPS have been able to locate people inside buildings using wireless technology for at least two years. A 73-year-old man who wandered from his home, for example, was located twice inside crowded, tall structures within three hours.

But this technology requires new infrastructure that U.S. carriers would have to build, sources said.

Another possible solution would be to adapt Bluetooth, a wireless technology that enables devices to communicate at a range of 30 meters. Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones already exist, and will be launched in the United States next week. But authorities would have to install separate devices on each floor, or every second floor, of a building that would help them locate where the Bluetooth device is, according to Pulver's letter to the FCC.

It is apparent that the Oct. 1 deadline for the so-called Enhanced 911 or e-911 systems, which authorities first demanded in 1996, will pass without any carrier meeting the FCC requirements. The FCC has not indicated what it intends to do once the deadline passes, although it can levy fines of up to $10,000 a day for noncompliance.

Carriers continue to blame the FCC for setting an unattainable timeframe, even after they won a two-year extension of the 1999 deadline to have the system in place. Dozens of carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, have again asked for delays, most citing the unavailability of the cell phones needed to make the system work. The FCC has yet to rule on their delay request.

Police also haven't escaped blame. In July, surveys conducted by the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials, which represents many of the dispatchers answering the 911 calls, showed that less than half of these same police departments, where one-third of the 911 calls are from cell phones, have even asked carriers to provide the system.