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Imagine you’re facing an emergency and you need a paramedic, fireman, or police officer, but don’t have a cellular phone available to call 9-1-1, or you do call 9-1-1 but don’t know or cannot communicate your location, and dispatcher cannot trace it. For many Americans this is a very frightening reality. Many low-income people cannot afford cell phones, and are unable to contact emergency services without a landline connection.
Furthermore, many Americans have non-service initialized (NSI) mobile phones, which are not subscribed to a wirelesss carrier but are often distributed through recycled phone programs solely for the purposes of dialing 9-1-1 in an emergency. Domestic violence victims are a prime example of recipients of these phones. However, in this case, the callers’ location cannot be traced, even though these recipients could very likely end up in a situation where they cannot communicate their location to the 9-1-1 dispatcher.
In 2013, Representative Kevin Yoder (R-KS) introduced the Kelsey Smith Act. The Act requires telecom carriers to provide, at law enforcement agency request, call location information for users of commercial mobile services or IP-enabled voice services for public safety response during an emergency. Several Republicans in the House of Representatives signed on to the Act, which failed to pass the House in May. But, Rep. Yoder says he will continue fighting. He expects the bill to be brought back to the House floor soon and under rules that will allow passage with a simple majority. According to Yoder, “It is clear the Kelsey Smith Act has a support of the majority of the House of Representatives.” The Kelsey Smith Act recognizes the importance of geolocation technology that is available to cellular phone subscribers.
Acknowledging the need for law enforcement to be able to determine cell phone locations cannot be separated from acknowledging a need for cell phones - for all Americans, regardless of socio-economic status. Members of Congress who have a commitment to public safety are acting in direct conflict with those principles when they seek to limit access to communications technology for the poor, specifically cellular phones. This year, House Republicans submitted two proposals seeking to greatly limit and restrict the Federal Communications Commissions’ Lifeline program. H.R. 5525, the “End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act,” would eliminate the ability of Lifeline subscribers to use their subsidies for wireless voice or broadband service. And a proposed amendment to H.R. 5485, the “Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act,” would have prohibited the use of Lifeline for broadband service unless the Lifeline program was capped. Neither initiative was successful, but opponents of Lifeline will likely continue to try and cripple the program.
The Lifeline program is essential to the public safety sector because it increases access to public safety communications by equipping more low-income users with traceable service-initialized cellphones. Lifeline is crucial to ensuring that all Americans, even those from low-income communities, can contact 9-1-1 during an emergency - regardless of their location. Furthermore, if a caller does not know his or her location, but calls from a service-initialized cell phone, the 9-1-1 dispatcher can contact the cell carrier and request a trace of a subscriber’s GPS coordinates. That information can aid a dispatcher in dispatching emergency services to an exact and precise location. During the critical moments of an emergency, time is of the essence and sometimes a rapid response can mean the difference between life and death. It is essential that the Lifeline program remain intact, as equipping more people with cell phones greatly expands the accessibility of public safety communications, particularly to low-income communities.