Wi-Fi should be considered in E-911 technology debate

editor's corner

The FCC is considering some big changes to the way wireless phones provide 911 location data.

Earlier this month, the commission issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on how to make wireless 911 calls more accurate and planning for the future when many wireless calls will be VoIP calls.

One of the more interesting pieces in the NPRM has to do with leveraging commercial location technologies and adding them to the emergency location mix to enhance accuracy. Commercial location services have become an important revenue generator, and mobile operators have a vested revenue-generating interest in making sure that these types of applications provide enhanced accuracy. Today, wireless 911 technology is a separate piece in mobile networks consisting of assisted GPS and network-based technologies.

In particular, the FCC is looking for comment on the potential use of Wi-Fi to support location accuracy, especially indoors.

It's a far-away notion at this point, but one that is garnering much interest.

"It is a question we are being asked every day," John Baker, vice president and general manager for the Network Solutions Group at Commscope, said in an interview.

As the FCC notes, Wi-Fi isn't used for 911 location because current deployments for Wi-Fi location are based on proprietary implementations; support for transporting Wi-Fi measurements to the Wi-Fi location server are not available in the E-911 control plane interface standards; only a small number of mobile phones in the marketplace have Wi-Fi capability; and the use of Wi-Fi positioning reduces a device's battery life.

"There is no registered, regulated database in terms of accuracy or location of where any of these access points are," Baker said. "Google and Skyhook all rely on drive testing the network with mobile phones... In reality, these access points are moving and changing on a day-to-day basis."

But given the fact that mobile operators are embracing Wi-Fi as a data offload strategy, making Wi-Fi a carrier-grade extension of their existing mobile networks, could make Wi-Fi a valuable location tool in the future.

AT&T Mobility, for instance, is building hotzones--large Wi-Fi coverage areas--in many major cities. Cable provider Cablevision now owns a massive Wi-Fi network in New York with tens of thousands of outdoor access points and thousands of indoor locations across the metro area. These providers will have a better grasp on where access points are.

Wi-Fi is becoming standard technology in smartphones and the database technology--while not registered or up to par for E-911 location today--is maturing. Google is keen on building up its Wi-Fi location capabilities since they complement its search business.

Skyhook has been around since 2003 and powers several commercial applications such as Citysearch, Mapquest and Priceline.com.

Skyhook's software-based location system touts device location with 10- to 20-meter accuracy by collecting raw data from Wi-Fi access points, GPS satellites and cell towers with advanced hybrid positioning algorithms.

As Wi-Fi becomes more of a carrier-grade technology, the FCC should move ahead to encourage technology companies to start solving the hurdles.--Lynnette