The National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, recently released its annual assessment of the penetration of Phase II wireless enhanced 911, or E911, service nationwide. According to NENA, 95% of Americans live in areas that have Phase II service, i.e., the ability of wireless carriers to deliver to the appropriate public-safety answering point the call-back number and location of users calling 911 from a wireless handset. This represents a 5% increase year over year. In addition, 90% of PSAPs nationwide are Phase II capable.

This is good news, of course. It is comforting to know that should I roll my Jeep over some night—it’s pretty easy to do as the vehicle, while a blast to drive, has the drawback of being amazingly unbalanced—that first responders will be able to find me. Unfortunately, a lot depends on where I roll my Jeep. Generally speaking, if I’m somewhere on the West Coast or anywhere east of the Mississippi River, I’ll be in pretty good shape. But if I’m in the far-less-populous Rocky Mountain States or in the Great Plains, I could be in trouble. Twenty percent of the nation’s 3135 counties don’t have Phase II, and most of them are in those regions. (If I’m ever off-roading in Nevada, I’ll have to be particularly careful; roughly 80% of state has only basic 911 service or none at all.)

The situation in these largely rural states probably won’t improve much, if at all. Traditionally, the federal government hasn’t provided funding to deploy 911 technology in rural areas, according to Patrick Halley, NENA’s governmental affairs director. Instead, funding generally is provided from money raised through fees and taxes, and the sad fact is that less-populous states generate far less of such revenue than the big boys. “And the systems cost just as much to build out, if not more, in rural areas,” Halley said.

Some help is in the offing, but not much. The federal government finally is about to dole out $43.5 million for Phase II upgrades that first was authorized by the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004. The money will be disbursed in the form of block grants to the states, each of which will receive a minimum of $500,000 and a maximum of $3 million. Even at the highest funding levels, this strikes me as being analogous to emptying the contents of a sprinkling can in Death Valley. “That’s not going to do a whole lot,” Halley conceded. “It’s better than zero and hopefully it will allow some things to get done that otherwise wouldn’t have. But it’s not going to save the world by any means.”

The situation could be worse, as it is in Canada, which has no Phase II service of any kind. That’s supposed to change very soon, as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has mandated that Phase II service be available nationwide by Feb. 2010, according to Rick Galway, NENA’s Canadian region director.

That seems like crazy talk to me. But Galway thinks it can be done. He pointed out that Canada has a relatively small number of wireless carriers—about a half dozen—that would have to upgrade their systems, and only 600-800 PSAPs, compared with the more than 6000 that exist in the U.S. And the country’s population—which is just 10% of the U.S. population—generally is clustered in a swath that extends from Vancouver to Halifax and from the U.S./Canada border to roughly 200 miles north. That means the cellular systems are concentrated there, too.

Other than a handful of small towns and military installations, there’s nothing above that swath but “moose, caribou and bears,” Galway said.

He added that PSAPs located in and around Canada’s major cities and population centers already are equipped with computer-aided dispatch systems that would be able to accept Phase II data. However, I wonder where they’re going to get the money to upgrade the other centers. After all, the ability of wireless carriers to generate Phase II-compliant location data for a wireless 911 call does absolutely no good if the appropriate PSAP is unable to receive or process the information.

It doesn’t seem like Canada’s economy is in any better shape than ours. Even if economic times were good, Canada apparently has the same problem with wireless 911 surcharge money being reallocated to other purposes that we do in the U.S. According to Galway, more than $157 million has been collected by service providers annually over the past five years—“at least,” he said—to upgrade the country’s 911 system, but none of the money has been spent for that purpose.

I hate to say it, but the CRTC is going to have to rethink its timeline.

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