by Ben Worthen

Launch of Enhanced 911 (E-911) Far Behind Schedule

Nov 15, 20033 mins
Data Center

The nationwide rollout of the Enhanced 911 (E-911) program, which requires carriers to locate the origin of 911 calls from wireless phones, will probably not happen by the Federal Communications Commission’s Dec. 31, 2005, deadline. That’s what John Muleta, the head of the FCC’s wireless bureau, told Congress in June.

Ironically, the reason has nothing to do with wireless technology and everything to do with the old, wired communications infrastructure.

When the E-911 rule first came out in 1996, the onus was on the wireless carriers to develop technologies by October 2001 that could pinpoint callers. That was the first step on the way to E-911. And while carriers won delays to extend the deadline to 2005, they have solved the technical challenge using two techniques: global positioning system chips that use satellites to locate mobile phones, and signal triangulation, which detects radio signals from calls to locate their source.

So the real problem now is communicating the location information to the emergency service dispatch centers known as public safety answering points, or PSAPs, that field 911 calls, says Dale Hatfield, the former chief of the office of engineering and technology at the FCC.

The current wired phone network has two channels?one for conversation and one for related information, such as length of call and destination, that make billing possible. It’s an analogue system, which is at least a generation behind the digital wireless network. As such, it just can’t handle the complex information that comes from a wireless carrier. Furthermore, the PSAPs themselves are using old systems. In order for E-911 to work, both the wired communications infrastructure and the systems inside the nation’s 5,300 PSAPs will have to be upgraded, Hatfield says.

Theoretically, two years should be enough time to replace the infrastructure. However, it is up to cash-strapped individual communities and the states to make the necessary changes. Only a handful of states, including Rhode Island and Tennessee, look ready to meet the 2005 deadline, according to the FCC.

The House is expected to vote on a bill by year-end that is designed to address this shortcoming. The E-911 Implementation Act would set aside $500 million to help pay for the E-911 infrastructure and prohibit local jurisdictions from diverting those funds to other budgetary needs. The bill also would set up a national coordination office for the program at the Commerce Department.

That may answer some critics of the E-911 implementation who have said that there isn’t enough oversight at either the state or federal level. Most states don’t have E-911 coordinators, and some don’t even have cost recovery steps in place, such as a 50-cent monthly fee added on to consumers’ mobile phone bills.

Even if the House passes the bill, however, the money is only enough to fund a few demonstration projects, says Hatfield, who is now a professor at the University of Colorado.

Since the summer, FCC officials have linked E-911 to national security in an effort to jump-start the states’ progress. A Senate bill would require local emergency dispatch centers using federal money to cooperate with both the FCC and the Department of Homeland Security. But project management and coordination is so far behind in some places that even an influx of money and other resources may not be enough to put things on track in thousands of local jurisdictions by 2005. “If they haven’t taken these steps by now, it’s unlikely they’ll be ready,” says Hatfield.