Pinpointing wireless 911 calls remains tricky

Lynnette LunaLast week I had a fascinating visit at Denver 911, a rather large public-safety answering point (PSAP) in Denver County. It was demonstrating for the media a new wireless indoor location service offered by WirelessWerx.

In addition to the demo, I had the opportunity to speak with Denver 911 officials about the frustrations they face in locating wireless callers (approximately 60 percent of the calls the PSAP receives come from wireless callers). The primary issue is the fact that pinpointing wireless 911 calls to their exact location simply isn't possible. A call comes in and often places the caller blocks away from his or her actual location. And with GPS-based technology, finding someone in an apartment or office building is nearly impossible.

Making matters worse is callers' expectation that 911 call centers will know exactly where they are, despite their calls dropping in and out. When call taker Carl Worley answers an emergency call, he always asks where the caller is. He typically gets the response, "Well, you know where I am." Most of the time folks have no idea where they are, Worley said.

Carl Simpson, the director of Denver 911, chalks it up to dramatized crime shows and sales people at carriers who push the safety aspect of phones and exaggerate their ability to pinpoint accuracy.

While Denver 911 officials can laugh at some of the calls they receive, (one caller simply said he was located next to a fire hydrant), they also know that trying to track down a caller's location--whether it's via a barrage of questions to learn more about a caller's location or firemen knocking on every door in an apartment building--wastes precious time.

Under current rules, cellular operators must locate emergency callers anywhere between 50 meters and 300 meters of their actual position, depending on the type of technology used. CDMA carriers utilize handset-based technology, while GSM operators use what is considered less accurate network-based solutions.

In 2007, the FCC adopted a stricter 911 location accuracy testing standard that would have required operators to test and report to the FCC E911 location accuracy on a local basis rather than a regional or statewide basis. However, a federal court overturned the rules. Then in 2008, the public-safety community and two of the country's largest operators, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility, came to an agreement. Rather than requiring operators to pinpoint callers at the PSAP level, NENA and APCO conceded to accuracy at the county level. Other operators such as T-Mobile USA and U.S. Cellular argue that the solution Verizon and AT&T have come up with isn't so economically viable for them.

That issue languished with the FCC until November of last year when the commission sought comment on what industry developments have occurred since 2008. It is again seeking to set new service rules concerning location accuracy and reliability.

The question today is, has technology evolved enough to offer significantly better location data both outdoors and indoors? Many filers with the FCC say a hybrid approach involving both network-based and assisted GPS technologies can provide greater accuracy.

This brings me back to why I was at Denver 911 in the first place: to see this demo from WirelessWerx. WirelessWerx has developed a technology that is deployed as an in-building wireless node network. The location nodes, which sell for $80 apiece, are installed throughout a building while a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone runs the SiteWERX application, which sits dormant until a caller dials 911. The platform's network software manages the nodes and sends location information to the PSAP. When the wireless 911 call is made, the caller's building, floor and room location automatically are sent to the PSAP. Denver 911 is the first in the nation to deploy the technology. (They get it virtually for free as a software solution).

A test caller made a call from an apartment building several miles away, and Denver 911 was able to pinpoint the caller. It's an interesting technology, but one with many challenges. Its success relies on the willingness of building owners to deploy the technology and mobile-phone users downloading the application. WirelessWerx is currently targeting universities that increasingly desire to offer better safety solutions to students. The company also has deals with companies like ADT, which is a national resale partner.

While it may take some time for this idea to take hold, I like it as part of a more comprehensive solution. Femtocells offer another promising way to track users indoors. With potentially thousands of mobile customers buying these personal base stations to boost their coverage, the ability to identify mobile call locations when routed through femtocells is becoming an important capability.

In the end, there won't be one silver bullet to solve the accuracy problem, but I can see a number of solutions like these popping up to fill in the gaps of FCC-mandated solutions. Unfortunately, it may take another 10 years for more accurate solutions to come to widespread fruition thanks to technical, political and economic hurdles--just like we saw when wireless 911 was first mandated. --Lynnette