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Cingular Wireless ordered to pay FCC

The company signs an agreement with federal regulators to pay $100,000 for missing the deadline to begin building a system that lets police locate cell phone users making 911 calls.

Cingular Wireless says it will pay $100,000 to federal regulators for missing the Oct. 1 deadline to begin building a system that lets police locate cell phone users making 911 calls.

The payment is the first of two that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to announce in the next few weeks. Sources said AT&T Wireless is negotiating a similar deal with the FCC, also for missing the Oct. 1 deadline.

All U.S. cell phone network operators are under a five-year, federally mandated schedule to make it possible for police to know the location of cell phones that call 911, something they can't do now. Oct. 1 was the first deadline carriers had to meet, and for most it meant beginning to add so-called E911 capabilities to their networks.

But the deadline passed without a single U.S. carrier coming into compliance. All had asked the FCC for a waiver of the deadline and more time. The FCC decided to grant waivers for delay to everyone, except for AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless, according to the FCC.

Brian Fontes, Cingular Wireless vice president of governmental affairs, said he's unsure why the FCC decided to pursue punitive measures against Cingular. The carrier had asked for the delay in August 2000, saying it had decided to use a different E911 technology and wouldn't be making the deadline as a result. Most carriers have to be in full compliance by 2005.

"We were saying all along, 'Yes, we wouldn't make the deadline,'" Fontes said.

An FCC representative declined comment.

AT&T Wireless told federal regulators it too was switching to a different type of E911 technology than originally planned. The wireless carrier's new proposal was filed too late to get public comment, which is the reason the FCC initiated what it calls "enforcement proceedings," according to FCC records.

AT&T Wireless declined to comment on enforcement actions. But a representative noted that AT&T Wireless had "amended its original technology solution proposal to be responsible to feedback received from the public safety community."

Calling up volunteers
The FCC describes the fee that Cingular Wireless has agreed to pay as a "voluntary contribution" for missing the Oct. 1 deadline. "It's an unusual choice of words," Fontes said.

Fontes explained that a "voluntary contribution" is similar in his view to out-of-court settlements reached in civil lawsuits. In the halls of justice, the agreements to end lawsuits will always be careful to point out that settling the case is not an admission of guilt by anybody, even though there might be a payment from one side to the other involved.

Cingular Wireless' $100,000 voluntary contribution is made in the same spirit, Fontes said. In exchange for the money, the FCC will end an investigation it began months ago into why Cingular Wireless missed the deadline, according to the agreement both sides signed.

Cingular Wireless will be responsible for more donations should it miss any in the next series of deadlines for the launch of these so-called E911 networks, according to the agreement the two sides have signed.

The deal between Cingular Wireless and the FCC will also be called off if Cingular Wireless fails to make the contribution in the next 30 days.