Wireless Calls to 911 May Not Send Location Information


Reports surfaced today that as many as 90% of wireless calls to 911 in D.C. don’t automatically provide public safety answering points with the caller’s specific location. Just to state the obvious: this is shocking, and dangerous. While sometimes a person calling 911 will be able to tell the dispatcher her location, there are many situations when that’s not possible, like the person who is too injured to give clear instructions, the caller who is hiding and needs to talk as little as possible, or the child who only knows he’s at Grandma’s house.

As if this wasn’t concerning enough, when we combine this news with the recent National Center for Health Statistics report that 41% of U.S. households depend solely on wireless voice service, the prospect of losing location accuracy in the move to wireless technologies takes on new proportions. Although the growth rate of wireless-only households was actually lower than in years past, millions of people are still relying on wireless service as their only tool to basic voice service, including 911.

When we look deeper into those numbers, we also realize that the people depending on wireless-only service are disproportionately likely to be low-income (56% of adults living in poverty), members of racial or ethnic minorities (53% of Hispanic adults and 42% of African-American adults), or young (66% of adults age 25-29). If we don’t demand the same public safety guarantees in wireless technology that we have come to expect from landline phones, we’ll only be adding to the burdens of underrepresented communities.

More broadly, the transition of many from landline to wireless service is only one facet of several changes we call the “phone network transition.” The issues we’re seeing now with 911 location accuracy strike at the heart of the debate around our expectations for new technologies as our basic communications services move to IP-based technology, fiber or wireless infrastructure, or some combination.

Wireless service isn’t even the only area we’ve seen the network transition threaten to undermine the public safety needs of the people relying on the network. For example, the Wireless Home Phone product AT&T is currently asking to test in the FCC’s technology transitions trials tells users (in the fine print) that they'll need to tell the 911 centers their own address, even if they only use it as a stationary replacement for their home phone.

As we see in the Washington Post’s article and as we’ve seen in past failed attempted transitions, we cannot just assume that “new” is always “better.” As we seek ways to maximize the opportunities presented by new technologies, we need to ensure we are not incidentally undermining the basic values of the network that we all rely on. We need to ensure no one is left behind and that new technologies are actually a step forward for the people relying on the network.

The FCC’s proposal to require wireless carriers to provide more specific information is a wise and apparently very necessary move. In addition to those efforts, we must continue to view all of these issues as part of the broader transition, and remind ourselves of the importance of ensuring that new technologies continue to serve the enduring values that people have come to expect from our communications networks.


Image credit Flickr user Mixy Lorenzo

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