GAO: Universal E911 for cell phones years away

A lack of money and coordination at the state and local levels is delaying implementation of Enhanced 911 emergency service for cellular phones, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

"Implementation of wireless E911 is several years away in many states, raising the prospect of piecemeal availability of this service across the country for an indefinite number of years to come," GAO concluded.

The service provides public-safety answering points with information about the location of emergency calls made from cell phones. According to the Federal Communications Commission, as many as one third of 911 calls now are made from cell phones.

Wireless E911 requires the cooperation of cellular carriers, wireline carriers and the answering points that dispatch emergency services such as fire, police and ambulance. FCC has mandated that wireless carriers provide E911 capability, but the commission has no authority over the answering points that serve state and local agencies.

The service is being implemented in two phases. In Phase 1, wireless carriers now must provide information about the cell site and sector in which a wireless call originates. A sector is the area served by a particular antenna within a cell. Many cells have three antennas.

In Phase 2, carriers must be able to provide the specific location in latitude and longitude that can be displayed on a map for emergency dispatchers. The deadline for making Phase 2 service available differs depending on the carrier and the technology being used, but all must offer it by 2006.

According to a Transportation Department database cited by GAO, 65 percent of public-safety answering points had Phase 1 wireless E911 service as of October and only 18 percent had Phase 2 service.

A GAO survey of states showed 24 have plans to implement Phase 2 service by 2005. "However, all other state contacts estimated dates beyond 2005 or were unable to estimate a date," the report said.

GAO blamed a lack of funding and coordination between governments and wireline and wireless carriers. Deploying Phase 2 service is expected to cost $8 billion over the next five years, and many jurisdictions and companies do not have plans for covering the cost.

The full report, Telecommunications: Uneven Implementation of Wireless Enhanced 911 Raises Prospect of Piecemeal Availability for Years to Come, is available online.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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