The more I witness the proliferation of Wi-Fi — in enterprise, on college campuses, throughout metro areas and on smartphones — the more I think it will play an integral role in giving public-safety answering points (PSAPs) more detailed information about where mobile callers are than cellular-based location technologies alone can.

Wi-Fi is exploding. AT&T, which holds a vast network of Wi-Fi hotspots in places like Starbucks, reported that customers in 2009 made a record 85.5 million Internet connections via its Wi-Fi network — four times the number of Wi-Fi connections made in 2008. The majority of those connections came from smartphones. Cable operators and other fixed broadband operators are using Wi-Fi as a subscriber acquisition-and-retention tool, offering free Wi-Fi access in hotspots. New York is expected to have extensive Wi-Fi coverage thanks to a roaming deal between cable operators Cablevision, Time Warner and Comcast. Enterprises are retiring their wired telecom equipment in favor of wireless LANs.

Moreover, analysts predict that Wi-Fi will be nearly ubiquitous in mobile phones within four years. ABI Research notes that 140 million handsets were sold with Wi-Fi in them in 2009. The firm predicts 500 million will be sold in 2014.

And companies already are leveraging Wi-Fi and location identification. Yesterday, E911 enterprise vendor RedSky introduced a downloadable smartphone application called My e911 that’s targeted to college and corporate campuses. At the same time an emergency call is routed after a mobile user dials 911, the My e911 app notifies campus or corporate security with a Google map pinpointing the location of the caller.

The downloadable My e911 application can be preconfigured to make campus security the default entity that’s notified whenever a 911 call is made. The app captures the best available location information when the call is placed — using a hierarchy of GPS, then Wi-Fi, and then cell towers — and continually polls for new location information. RedSky also has partnered with WLAN enterprise vendor Aruba Networks to provide voice-over–Wi-Fi callers with 911 capabilities.

RedSky’s solution is a significant step forward for the in-building location of wireless 911 callers. A leap forward would entail expanding this capability beyond a campus environment to other networks and hotspots across a metro area — a scenario I can see occurring. For instance, Skyhook Wireless — which provides a software-centric positioning system that focuses on location applications for mobile applications — can leverage its nationwide database of known Wi-Fi access points to calculate the location of any Wi-Fi-enabled device. In addition, the IEEE is working on new location capabilities for the Wi-Fi standard, including features that will enable devices to query their locations.


With most operators beginning to embrace Wi-Fi — primarily because their customers want it and because it offers a viable way to offload heavy data traffic that is beginning to tax their networks — I wouldn't be surprised to see them touting Wi-Fi as a way to make 911 more accurate, at least in those metropolitan areas where Wi-Fi is growing and GPS location doesn't work very well.

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