Accurate location data is on smartphones, so why don’t more wireless carriers use it to locate emergency callers?
Software on Apple Inc.’s iPhones and Google’s Android smartphones help mobile apps like Uber and Facebook to pinpoint a user’s location, making it possible to order a car, check in at a local restaurant or receive targeted advertising.
But 911, with a far more pressing purpose, is stuck in the past.
U.S. regulators estimate as many as 10,000 lives could be saved each year if the 911 emergency dispatching system were able to get to callers one minute faster. Better technology would be especially helpful, regulators say, when a caller can’t speak or identify his or her location.
After years of pressure, wireless carriers and Silicon Valley companies are finally starting to work together to solve the problem. But progress has been slow.
Roughly 80% of the 240 million calls to 911 each year are made using cellphones, according to a trade group that represents first responders. For landlines, the system shows a telephone’s exact address. But it can register only an estimated location, sometimes hundreds of yards wide, from a cellphone call.
“It is really frustrating to know that my kids can order pizza and they know exactly where they are, and I call for Uber and they know exactly where I am,” said Christy Williams, who runs a 911 system in the counties that surround Dallas, “but that it can’t be used for lifesaving methods.”
That frustration is now a frequent source of tension during 911 calls, said Colleen Eyman, who oversees 911 services in Arvada, Colo., just outside Denver.
“The moment you pick up that call, you have to start interviewing: ‘Where are you?’” Ms. Eyman said. “All they want is to just get some help. They don’t understand why you’re asking all these questions. And it creates an angst and a lack of confidence.”
U.S. regulations require wireless carriers to deliver cellphone location data to 911. In the 1990s, some carriers relied on triangulation among nearby cell towers. They later pushed phone manufacturers to install GPS chips for more accurate location estimates.
GPS relies on satellites and can take up to 30 seconds or more to establish a position, so it doesn’t work well indoors, where rooftops interfere with the signal. That has become a problem as most Americans ditch landlines and use cellphones only.
That rough estimate of location that 911 responders receive is in contrast with the blue dot users see on Google Maps, which often shows a smartphone’s location down to about 15 meters.
When smartphones came around in the late 2000s, Google and then Apple enhanced mapping technologies by corroborating the GPS location with data from inside the phone, such as proximity to Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers, and the barometric pressure, which indicates altitude.
Smartphone sensors continually monitor this information and occasionally relay it back to Google or Apple. As a result, the tech firms’ ability to determine a smartphone’s location quickly surpassed that of wireless carriers. But carriers and the tech giants didn’t immediately work to ensure that enhanced data was available to 911.
“I think there is an institutional reluctance by Big Tech to not want to formally enter into the public safety world,” said retired Rear Adm. David Simpson, who oversaw emergency management and cybersecurity at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.
“They will do all sorts of things, outside of any formal obligation, that are very useful,” Mr. Simpson said, “but without it being formal, it’s very difficult for a public safety organization—police, fire, ambulance, 911—to really rely on its being there all the time.”
Representatives of Google and Apple said they were committed to helping public safety.
In 2014, after talking about the 911 problem over lunch, a group of Google engineers on the Android location team decided to look into it. One engineer, Akshay Kannan, decided to dedicate his “20% time,” which is the free time Google allots employees to experiment, to find a way to provide the more precise location data to 911 operators. The project was code-named Thunderbird.
Mr. Kannan started by attending a 911 conference in Denver. “The first thing we heard everyone say was: ‘Before we’ll even ask, ‘911, what’s your emergency,’ now the standard is to ask, ‘what’s your location,’” he said. “It was extremely clear this was a huge problem.”
Officials at BT Group PLC, which manages the U.K.’s emergency response system, were already tackling the problem and quickly agreed to work with Google. In mid-2016, they jointly launched a technology that improved location accuracy of emergency calls down to a radius of just a few yards. It is now in use in at least 10 countries, including the U.K., Austria and Estonia.
Apple, meanwhile, developed a technology that also made its rich device-location information available to wireless carriers, under a program called HELO, for Hybridized Emergency Location.
U.S. wireless carriers, however, moved much more slowly, partly because regulators weren’t spurring them along. Historically, U.S. regulations only applied to outdoor location accuracy, where GPS works better. In 2015, the FCC passed a rule requiring carriers to deliver more accurate location data for 80% of calls by 2021.
AT&T Inc. T 0.37% and T-Mobile US Inc. TMUS 2.54% recently started using Apple’s technology, meaning calling 911 on an iPhone on one of those networks could deliver more accurate location information. All four major U.S. carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint —are testing Google’s technology, and T-Mobile says it plans to activate it soon.
Neither Google nor Apple offers a blanket solution to the 911 problem, according to telecom engineers. Their methods are different and each approach works only on their own devices, they say. Carriers are also wary of Silicon Valley’s culture of experimentation for critical public safety services, the companies say.
“The commercial location solutions…are built for a different-use case than 911,” said Matthew Gerst, an assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry trade group. The smartphone data is still just an estimate, so it doesn’t deliver an exact street address like many in the 911 community want, he added.
Instead, wireless carriers have focused on building from scratch their own joint database of physical addresses where Wi-Fi hot spots are located. The system, called the National Emergency Address Database, or NEAD, will be similar to the Wi-Fi databases Google and Apple use.
But unlike Google and Apple, which update their databases automatically when phones pass by Wi-Fi hot spots, the carriers plan to cajole companies that own large numbers of Wi-Fi hot spots, such as cable companies and large building owners, to input hot spot addresses manually. And they eventually want ordinary citizens to do so, too.
Carriers hope the NEAD will be operational in late 2018. The database is currently empty, but is aiming to have 30 million hot spots in the top 25 markets by 2021. Wireless carriers won’t be allowed to use the data for anything other than directing 911 calls.
Until then, 911 operators continue to wait. Ms. Eyman, who runs the 911 center outside Denver, recalled a situation recently where a young child fell from a window and a babysitter calling on a cellphone didn’t know the home’s address.
“She was looking for numbers on the mailbox, on the outside of the house,” Ms. Eyman said. “Anything we can do to reduce a delay on an emergency, a life-or-death situation, would be such an improvement.”