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More alarms over cell phone E911

Cell phone operators tell the FCC they need more time to get location-sensitive phones into customers' hands.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
A sizable percentage of U.S. cell phone subscribers aren't upgrading to new phones as quickly as they used to, throwing into doubt a major initiative designed to improve wireless 911 calling, cell phone industry groups say.

Late Thursday, a large number of U.S. operators asked federal regulators to suspend rules that, by year's end, require 95 percent of their subscribers to have handsets capable of sending details about their geographic location to emergency operators.

The companies argue that about 15 percent of U.S. cell phone subscribers are happy enough with their service and handsets to hold on to their old phones longer than most users do. On average, cell phone customers replace their handsets within 18 to 24 months. Those who hold on to them are less likely to upgrade to new location-sensitive handsets, argue two trade groups, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, and the Rural Cellular Association.

Particularly vexing is the situation for customers who own cell phones only for "peace of mind" and choose to use them only during emergency situations. These customers rarely change operators or their phones, greatly reducing the likelihood they will upgrade their handsets to location-sensitive versions.

"It is unlikely that many wireless carriers will be able to rectify this situation in the next six months," lawyers for the two organizations wrote to the FCC on Thursday. The attorneys asked for an indeterminate amount of extra time for U.S. operators to meet the wireless 911 requirement.

The proposed waiver would apply only to Verizon Wireless, Sprint and other operators using global positioning satellite (GPS) location technology in their phones. It wouldn't apply to Cingular Wireless or T-Mobile, two major U.S. operators that use a different technology to locate subscribers.

An FCC representative had no immediate comment.

Traditional landline phone providers have offered E911, or enhanced 911, for years. The service has been credited with saving lives. Often, someone calling 911 is disconnected or callers may be too panicked to mention their location. E911 ensures that the address of the caller is available to the emergency operator.

Difficulties meeting E911 mandate deadlines are nothing new to cell phone operators. Major providers, including Cingular Wireless, at first backed technology that, it eventually was discovered, failed to meet FCC requirements. The operators had to switch to new technology midstream, which created delays and caused the companies to miss several regulatory deadlines.