Carriers need E911 rescue

A tech decision made years ago now has three U.S. carriers in hot water with federal regulators who are demanding they move faster to meet E911 requirements.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
A technology decision years ago now has three U.S. carriers in hot water with federal regulators who are demanding they move faster to meet E911 requirements.

Cingular Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless and AT&T Wireless are all asking the Federal Communications Commission for more time to meet requirements that would allow rescue workers to pinpoint the location of a cell phone used to call 911 during an emergency.

The companies say they've run into a number of roadblocks, and these issues may now prevent the carriers from meeting a June deadline for E911 services, according to Joel Taubenblatt, legal adviser in the office of the Chief Wireless Bureau for the FCC. The FCC is considering a new September or October deadline, he said.

One of the main issues has to do with the type of technology that carriers use to pinpoint people and their cell phones. Many carriers use a technology called Enhanced Observed Time Difference, or EOTD. The technology compares the arrival time of a 911 call at a number of different cellular base stations in an area. Through distance and time calculations, a person is located.

FCC records, however, show that the use of EOTD technology and equipment is an issue, causing vendors and carriers massive headaches and missed delivery deadlines. At the heart of the problem is accuracy.

"If it comes to light that EOTD won't meet the accuracy standards, the Federal Communications Commission will have to investigate whether EOTD is still a viable alternative," Taubenblatt recently told a gathering of industry officials in San Francisco.

The problems stretch back to 1996, when the FCC gave carriers a few years to create "Enhanced 911" services. While rescue workers can locate a call made over landlines, it is impossible to locate cellular calls in the same fashion. Ken Hyers, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, estimates that about 20 people in the United States have died in emergencies after calling 911 for help.

Under E911 guidelines, carriers must be able to locate a cell phone on a network within 100 yards. There are about a half-dozen ways for carriers to do this. Carriers using Qualcomm's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology use satellite technology to pinpoint handsets, for example.

So far only Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless--which both use CDMA technology--have actually launched E911 networks on a limited basis. Even so, there are still challenges. Verizon's E911 service is only available at emergency call centers in York County, Va., and the state of Rhode Island. Sprint PCS recently told the FCC it "might not" make a July deadline requiring 25 percent of all the new handsets it sells are compatible with GPS (Global Positioning System) technology.

On the other side of the house, carriers using a competing standard known as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) have typically used EOTD to locate handsets. Vendors such as Sony Ericsson, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Siemens and Research In Motion make handset devices that incorporate EOTD.

Running in circles
The problem is many of these vendors are also having difficulties making the location technology meet FCC accuracy standards. This one speed bump has created others in its wake: Without network equipment, carriers can't test handsets. Without testing, carriers don't think they can launch any new technology, Taubenblatt said.

"They are caught in a circle," he said.

The FCC has already granted the carriers extra time to meet the requirements; fines have followed for those that have still missed solid deadlines. The FCC proposed fining AT&T Wireless $2.1 million for missing an October deadline. Cingular agreed to pay a "voluntary contribution" of $100,000 for missing a deadline.

Representatives from Cingular and VoiceStream refused to comment. AT&T spokeswoman Rochelle Cohen said, without naming specific companies, that the company's vendors are in part to blame for its present woes.

"The E911 mandate is not just technically complex," she said. "We are dependent on our infrastructure and handset vendors meeting their commitments. In some cases, they have failed to meet their commitments."

The challenges are enormous, many executives have said. Carriers have to connect 3,000 emergency call centers in the United States, scores of national and local telephone companies' landline networks, and the cellular networks themselves.

"There are huge logistical problems," said a source at Nortel Networks, which is scheduled to build network equipment for VoiceStream by next month. "There are 20,000 networks that need to link in just one small part of a market."

All the carriers say they can offer the handsets by October, according to FCC records. AT&T Wireless was relying on Nokia for EOTD telephone infrastructure equipment and was getting its EOTD-compliant handsets from Motorola. Both are late, according to FCC records.

Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak said the company expects to ship EOTD-compliant cell phones this summer. While not admitting to any delays, Nowak said they are "in the midst of the complexities we knew we'd hit when we started down this path."

A Motorola representative did not return calls for comment.