Russia's GLONASS system a sticking point in deployment of new 911 location tech

Some Washington security officials have voiced concerns over a plan to use Russia's satellite location system to augment an effort in the United States to improve U.S. wireless carriers' ability to find 911 callers. In response, U.S. wireless industry executives and others have argued that using Russia's GLONASS location system won't create security problems for Americans.

The debate stems from a November announcement among Tier 1 U.S. wireless operators and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association to improve carriers' ability to locate 911 callers, including those indoors. The proposed solution from the carriers and APCO and NENA will use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other technologies supplement location data obtained directly from phones' GPS chips. One of the other technologies that could help improve location accuracy is Russia's GLONASS location system, which uses satellites and operates much like the United States' GPS system.

According to multiple reports, it's the reliance on technology from Russia--which has a rocky political relationship with the United States--that has caused some concerns. James Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use GLONASS "as a weapon" against the United States, potentially holding the 911 system "hostage."

But NENA and others blasted that argument.

"The consensus plan discusses the GLONASS system as a new component of handset A-GNSS capabilities because it is the only globally-available GNSS (Assisted Global Navigation Satellite Systems), other than NavStar/GPS that is currently operating," NENA wrote in a statement. "The consensus plan does not restrict carriers' ability to add or substitute other GNSSs, such as the European Galileo and Chinese BeiDou constellations, as those systems come online over the next 5-7 years. However, neither of these systems is currently available."

Added NENA: "Because handset A-GNSS chips can operate with any combination of satellites from any supported constellation, adding GLONASS support to existing GPS capabilities will not provide the Russian Federation with any leverage over U.S. E9‑1‑1 capabilities: Even if the GLONASS system were shut-down completely, handsets in locations with clear views of the sky could still calculate location estimates based solely on measurements of U.S. GPS satellite signals."

When they announced the proposed solution in November, Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) said they hope to use it to obtain a location fix using heightened location accuracy technologies for 40 percent of all wireless 911 calls within in two years; 50 percent within three years; 75 percent within five years and 80 percent within six years. Those goals generally line up against milestones discussed by the FCC, which has been investigating ways to improve the technologies used to locate 911 callers. The FCC has said more accurate location technologies could save 10,000 lives every year--locating 911 callers who are in a building is particularly critical for emergency responders who might have to search dozens of floors for callers in skyscrapers.

For more:
- see this Fox News article
- see this Washington Times article

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