Fair or not, wireline and wireless E911 are different
One of the things we love at MRT is getting feedback from our readers, whose input frequently makes us reconsider technologies, policies and their impact on the communications marketplace.
This week, I received this sort of thought-provoking communication from a reader citing a May column I wrote in this space applauding the FCC for requiring voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers to provide E911 service to all customers via the established 911 network.
The reader noted that Nextel Communications asked the FCC for an extension beyond the Dec. 31 deadline to provide location-based 911 capability to 95% of its users because almost 20% of its customers have declined to upgrade to GPS-enabled handsets.
“Can we now expect that you will argue vigorously that the FCC should require the wireless carriers to terminate service on December 31, 2005 to customers who have refused to upgrade their phones to provide location information to 911?” the reader asked.
It’s a legitimate question. After all, wireless carriers represent a much more mature industry than the nascent VoIP market — a fact shared repeatedly with the FCC by VoIP representatives. In short, is it consistent to ask providers of a much newer technology (VoIP) to meet a standard in a few months that mature wireless carriers have not been able to achieve in almost a decade?
When considered solely in that light, my answer would be “no.” However, I don’t think that theoretical context is most relevant in this debate. Several realities dictate that it’s more important for the FCC to place tighter restrictions on VoIP carriers regarding location-based 911.
First, wireless phones are very personal devices, so the notion of individual liberties is more relevant. I don’t believe anyone other than myself has ever placed a call from my mobile phone. During that same period, countless others — whether they are visitors or babysitters — have called from the landline phone in my home. In an emergency, they have an expectation that my landline phone will be able to reach 911 without having to wonder whether it is a VoIP or legacy phone.
Second, VoIP phones have been advertised as replacements for legacy landline phones, which inherently are associated with 911 service. While some households opt to use only wireless phones, the percentage remains small and wireless carriers do not profess that their products are wireline replacements.
Third, having a location-capable wireless phone is only helpful when and where the public safety answering point (PSAP) can access the information, and that’s not case in most of the United States. According to NENA, not even 40% of the PSAPs in 29 of 50 states are Phase II ready, and — as my colleague Glenn Bischoff has tirelessly noted — funding to make Phase II upgrades won’t be readily available in the near future. In contrast, the vast majority of PSAPs in the country are E911 capable on the wireline side, according to NENA.
Having said this, I would like to see the FCC be more proactive in its efforts to have wireless carriers provide location information and educate consumers about the risks of not having a location-capable handset. But it’s more important for regulators to ensure that all landline phones comply with E911 standards in the near term to meet public expectations and save lives.
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