Urgent Matters

Is GPS better for golf than 911?


While flipping through the Golf Channel, I constantly see infomercials regarding the latest and greatest in GPS rangefinders. Through the miracle of satellite GPS technology, the infomercial tells me that these handheld devices—usually costing between $200 and $500—would be able to tell me how far my ball is from the front of the green, from the pin and from the back of the green. Some gizmos even say how far I am from a hazard such as water or a bunker.

As someone who plays golf once or twice per year, this information would not be especially valuable to me—it’s rare that I can duplicate my swing enough to hit the ball a consistent length with any club. However, for good golfers, this tool would be extremely useful in making proper club selection

What bothers me about these infomercials is that they claim these devices can pinpoint the yardage between the golfer and the pin. As someone who has listened to multiple representatives of the commercial wireless industry state that the best that today’s 911-location technologies can do is estimate location within a 150-meter radius 95% of the time, the idea that these handhelds give precise yardage counts all the time boggles my mind, especially if the golf device is using the same GPS technology that is included in almost every cell phone today.

I don’t know the technical details of these golf devices, so maybe the claims are overblown or there are other technologies used to augment the basic GPS location to establish greater accuracy. Certainly GPS works better in open areas like golf courses, where there tend to be few buildings to obstruct the connection to the satellite. But I can’t help but wonder: If the emergency-response market was as lucrative as the retail golf market, would first-responder agencies know the location of a wireless 911 caller within a yard?

I know the economics may say otherwise, but it seems like we should be able to do better with 911 location.

Meanwhile, this darkly ironic scenario keeps gnawing at me: A solo golfer has a heart attack while on the course. He dials 911 but his condition prevents him from speaking. Emergency response is dispatched, but wireless E-911 accuracy is so limited that it’s tough to figure out which hole the golfer’s playing, much less the exact location where he collapsed. After losing valuable time, the medics finally find the golfer, too late. Next to the body is a cell phone, a golf club and his golf bag—with a GPS rangefinder trumpeting the exact location of the golfer, down to the yard.

Hopefully, this never happens, but it would seem dark like a dark perversion of location-based-service priorities. If I’m the heart-attack victim in this situation, I’d rather have the better location technology in my phone, so the medics could find me quicker—even if I had selected the wrong club for the next shot.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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