Cingular halts E911 gear shipments

The carrier is preparing to switch technologies it will use to locate people who dial 911 from a cell phone, according to sources and federal records.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Cingular Wireless is considering switching technologies it will use to locate people who dial 911 from a cell phone, according to sources.

Cingular spokesman Clay Owen would not confirm the assertions Thursday, but he acknowledged that the company told suppliers to stop shipping the equipment it ordered related to the 911 technology. The wireless carrier also disclosed Thursday that it will test another cell phone-locating technique later this month.

The company is "exploring other options," said Owen, who cited a product from TruePosition, a maker of software for locating cell phones, as one example.

Two sources requesting anonymity, one within Cingular, said the carrier is dissatisfied with the performance of the original technology it was looking at and is beginning to make the necessary moves to switch technologies.

The technologies involved are part of the company's efforts to meet a 2004 Federal Communications Commission deadline to implement a service that will allow emergency call centers to locate people who dial 911.

In 1996, the FCC said all major U.S. carriers must implement an "enhanced 911" service. Emergency call centers credit their current ability to locate a landline phone with saving the lives of those unaware of where they were, or too injured or panicked to provide any details. With more than half of all 911 calls now coming from cell phones, emergency call centers say they need the so-called enhanced 911 service more than ever.

Carriers AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile chose to use a technique called Enhanced Observed Time Difference (EOTD), which uses up to four cellular base stations to pinpoint a cell phone's location by measuring the arrival times of the call at various cellular antennas.

It works well in cities, where cell phone antennas are plentiful, but in rural areas cellular antennas are sometimes miles apart. Instead of four base stations, it's likely there will be just two to help determine a location, which will make the measurement less accurate, Chris Wade, chief executive of EOTD inventor Cambridge Positioning Systems said.

In an FCC filing Wednesday, Cingular said EOTD equipment was having trouble meeting the level of accuracy that the FCC wants. The less-than-stellar performance is creating "continued uncertainties regarding the ability of EOTD to satisfy the Commission" deadlines, attorneys for Cingular said in the filing.

Cingular has since asked its EOTD suppliers Ericsson, Nortel Networks, Nokia and Siemens to stop shipping the equipment and using any necessary network gear, according to the FCC filing. The carrier plans to begin testing software from TruePosition later this month, according to the filing.

Nokia was supplying Cingular with EOTD equipment meant for its wireless network, said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak. "We will continue to work with Cingular to make them reach their goal," he said Thursday.

Cingular appears to be concerned about meeting its deadline, said Tony Smith, Nortel's director of wireless regulatory affairs. "I don't have a crystal ball." He said the equipment from Nortel had been "performing very well."

A representative from AT&T Wireless, which is also using EOTD, declined to comment on whether it will halt shipments of the handsets and network equipment, as Cingular has done. "We are currently using EOTD in trials in selected markets as well as exploring other potential technology solutions," the representative said.

Fellow EOTD users Ericsson and T-Mobile, were not immediately available for comment.

Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless have had more luck with their technology choice, a version of GPS (global positioning system) that uses satellites orbiting the Earth as well as cellular antennas on the ground to find a cell phone.

The two carriers have launched E911 services in a small portion of the country, while AT&T Wireless, Cingular or T-Mobile have not launched any E911 services. But Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless are having difficulties. In recent FCC filings, the carriers said the problems are not so much a technical as they are financial. They're concerned that the tough economic times might make it difficult for people to afford to upgrade their phones.