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Find a wireless friend--for a fee

Carriers are scrambling to meet federal deadlines to make it possible to locate cell phones used to dial 911. Sprint PCS will likely be the next to do so.

AT&T Wireless on Monday introduced the nation's first service that tracks a cell phone's geographic location.

Most carriers are expected to offer some kind of location-based service in the future. Sprint PCS is likely the next to do so in July or August, when it launches a higher-speed phone network, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Customers who sign up for AT&T Wireless' "Find Friends" feature opt to be found by other members. The service is available in any of two dozen areas where AT&T Wireless has a cellular telephone network using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). Find Friends will be sold with AT&T Wireless' mMode plan, which costs $2.99 or more a month.

The AT&T Wireless service determines the position of a cell phone based on the nearest cellular antenna. In metropolitan areas like Chicago, where there are a large number of cell antennae, people can use the service to locate a phone within a city block. But accuracy diminishes in rural areas, where cellular antennae are often miles apart, an AT&T Wireless representative said.

Location-based services are among the new features wireless users will start to see in the next few months as carriers try to meet federally mandated deadlines to make it possible for an emergency call center operator to locate a cell phone that was used to dial 911.

Most wireless operators have already met the first phase of the mandate, which is to locate the nearest cell phone antenna being used during the call. The second phase, which most carriers are having trouble meeting, is to pinpoint a cell phone as close as 100 yards.

AT&T Wireless is among the carriers trying to meet the mandate using handsets based on a technique known as Enhanced Observed Time Difference technology, according to spokesman Ritch Blasi. However, many manufacturers are having problems making these handsets work, industry sources say.

The service introduced Monday does not depend on EOTD handsets, Blasi said. Instead, it can be used by any of the four GPRS handset AT&T Wireless sells.

Privacy groups have raised concerns about the new services, saying that in the wrong hands, the technology could pose a boon for criminals and advertisers.

But AT&T Wireless said that the service shouldn't raise those fears. The service will only find those cell phone owners who have given AT&T Wireless their permission to be found, Blasi said.