May 12, 2005 Cellphone Hangup: When You Dial 911, Can Help Find You? As More People Go Wireless, Patchwork of Call Centers Slows Locater System Upgrade Money Spent on Boots By ANNE MARIE SQUEO Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In November 1993, Jennifer Koon, under attack by a vicious assailant, dialed 911 from her cellphone. But the dispatcher in upstate New York could only listen helplessly for 20 minutes as the 18-year-old, unable to give her exact location, was beaten, driven to an alley and shot to death. The technology wasn't available to find her.
Almost 12 years later, more than half of the U.S. still lacks the technology to find cellphone callers in distress. Though the federal government is spending billions of dollars annually on homeland security, the 911 system that Americans rely on to report an emergency hasn't benefited.
With the explosive growth of wireless technology, more than a third of the 190 million calls placed to 911 each year now come from cellphones. Even as some of the nation's biggest cellular carriers face a December deadline to upgrade their systems for 911 calls, many emergency-call centers won't be able to receive the data. Virtually all of the nation's 6,000 call centers can locate land-line phones, but only 41% of them can locate cellphones, public-safety officials say. And the situation is getting worse with the growing popularity of Internet-based phone services -- some of which can't access traditional911 service.
No federal agency has the authority to drive the local, state and federal governments, as well as dozens of wireless and local-phone companies, toward a solution. The cellular industry initially reacted slowly because of costs and liability concerns. Public-safety officials estimate it would take $8 billion and at least four more years to modernize the nation's 911 system for wireless calls. And that doesn't include the costs of updating the system to handle Internet phone services.
Meanwhile, cash-strapped states have diverted funds earmarked for 911 to balance budgets and pay for unrelated items, including winter boots and dry cleaning for the New York State Police. While Congress passed a law last year to pay for some upgrades and stop the state raids on 911 money, President Bush, facing his own budget problems, has declined to fund that initiative.
"These are front-burner challenges getting back-burner treatment," says Michael Copps, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. "The government itself is still working on developing a nationwide plan. It just does not exist yet."
According to the latest information compiled by the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit corporation focused on public-safety communications issues, only six states, plus the District of Columbia, have the technology in place to find 911 wireless callers from most places in the state. Three more are close to completion. Sixteen states, including New Jersey, Arizona and Ohio, have upgraded less than10% of their counties, NENA says. Six of those states haven't finished a single county.
Even within many states, coverage is uneven, with some counties and cities receiving upgrades while neighboring ones haven't. A modernized call center in the South Side of Chicago, for example, often helps locate cellphone callers in nearby cities where emergency operators lack the technology to do it themselves.
Part of the 911 problem is the result of a vast shift among consumers away from traditional fixed-line phones toward new technologies. Older phones are easy to find because they are plugged into the wall at a specific address and aren't moveable. When a 911 call is made from that number, the location automatically pops up on the computer screen in front of the call-center operator who answers.
But consumers increasingly favor cellular and Internet services because they offer cheaper rates and greater mobility -- the very thing that makes callers difficult to find. About 6% of the nation's 182 million cellphone users have gotten rid of their home phones, according to industry analysts, who say the percentage will continue to rise.
Technology offers two ways to pinpoint wireless callers. Global Positioning System satellites can be used to find the caller if cellphones are equipped with a special chip, and the local 911 center has been upgraded to receive specific latitude and longitude data. That's the system being used by Verizon Wireless, Nextel Communications Inc. and Sprint Corp. Two other major cellular companies, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telecom AG, are using triangulation -- measuring the distance of a signal from three different cellphone towers -- to locate 911 callers.
But these technologies face challenges. Cellular providers using GPS have to get their customers to buy a new phone equipped with a special computer chip for their location system to work. In March, a man died in a Long Island snowstorm after calling 911 from an older cellphone that couldn't transmit his coordinates, even though the local call center had satellite-locator technology. Triangulation has proved problematic in rural areas, where towers, if there are any, are often built in straight lines along highways. That makes it difficult to get three separate measures to locate a 911 caller.
The FCC has set a year-end deadline for Verizon, Nextel and Sprint to upgrade nearly all their customers to GPS-enabled phones. But even if the companies persuade people with older phones to upgrade, no similar deadline has been set for local and state governments to get their equipment in place to handle such calls. And no federal agency has the jurisdiction to set one.
Internet-phone services offer an entirely different host of problems. These services allow consumers in, say, Boise, Idaho, to get a phone number with a Boston area code, which raises questions about where a911 call would be routed. Public-safety officials say new technology is needed to locate the call center nearest the Internet modem making the call, regardless of the phone number.
Some Internet phone services don't let users connect to 911 or they route callers to nonemergency numbers. Earlier this year, a family in Houston with Internet phone service couldn't alert police that two armed robbers had forced their way into the family's home and shot both parents in the legs. When their daughter called 911, she could only get a recorded message to hang up and try a different phone.
Later this month, the FCC is expected to require Vonage Holdings Corp., the nation's biggest Internet phone provider, and others to provide a direct connection to the 911 network, according to commission officials.
To provide a similar level of 911 service as traditional phones, new Internet protocols need to be written to allow the transmission of location data in addition to the voice call. New switching equipment and routers are also needed. The cost would be far less than the wireless 911 upgrade. Several companies are offering middleman solutions to allow Internet phone companies to connect to 911 networks, and Verizon and SBC have said they'll begin offering some direct connections to the 911 networks they run to companies like Vonage.
The difficulties involved in upgrading the system can partly be traced to 911's origin in the late 1960s, when AT&T still ran most of the country's phone service. In 1968, the company decided to make 911 a nationwide emergency number. At that time, Los Angeles County had 50 different phone numbers to reach the police; St. Louis had 32 for police and 57 for fire emergencies, according to the FCC.
Because rescue services fell under local, not federal, oversight, officials in Washington left it to the cities to set up operator centers to receive calls to the new number. It took until the late1990s before 96% of the U.S. had 911 service, but some 200 counties still don't. Calls to 911 are routed to the nearest emergency call center. Wireless 911 calls generally get routed based on their location when the call is made.
The breakup of Ma Bell made the picture even more complicated by spawning dozens of cellular and local-phone companies, all with a role to play in updating the 911 system. In 1996, the FCC called for upgrading the nation's entire system within five years to make it able to pinpoint cellphone callers to within about a 400-foot radius. But regulators didn't tell individual cellular companies and local officials how to accomplish this task, or pay for it. As a result, the deadline wasn't met.
"The wireless carriers were saying, 'We can't do this, our industry is in its infancy and these costs will stifle growth,' " said Anthony Haynes, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. Carriers also worried about liability issues if a 911 call was lost. Congress indemnified them against this in 1999.
Local-phone companies have presented obstacles, too. Excluded from FCC talks outlining the upgrades, some wanted to dictate the technology used in the upgrades to make it compatible with the older systems they already operated for wired phones. Others tried to profit from their role as middlemen between the wireless providers and call centers.
In the greater Kansas City, Mo., area, for example, obtaining wireless911 service from SBC Communications Inc., which provided regular 911 connections, would have cost an additional $2.5 million a year, says Greg Ballentine, the director of public safety there and president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. So officials opted to buy and manage their own system. An SBC spokesman said the company never made an official proposal for such service.
Even when money has been earmarked for modernizing 911, it often has been used for other purposes. This has been true of funds generated by special fees for upgrading 911 that dozens of states have tacked onto consumers' monthly phone bills.
New York has diverted more of these funds than any other state. It has assessed a fee on monthly phone bills for 911 upgrades since 1991, longer than most states, and has the biggest charge, up to $1.50. But in a March 2002 report, the state comptroller found that the New York State Police in 2001 spent money intended for 911 upgrades on items such as $4.66 million for vehicle leases and purchases, $1.2 million for maintenance of radio systems, $19,187 for winter boots and more than $500 for dry cleaning. State officials said all of the expenses were related to the state police's "public-safety mission," according to a response to the report.
During a training exercise in 2003, Rochester public-safety officials determined police and fire units had responded ably to a simulated gas attack by terrorists at a park concert. According to the drill's script, the attack had been reported to authorities by a citizen with a cellphone.
"What if the person calling was overcome by gas before he could tell them where he is?" asked David Koon, a New York state lawmaker, when briefed on the drill. Mr. Koon, the father of Jennifer, ran for office as an advocate of 911 reform after his daughter's death. (Her killer was eventually caught and sentenced to 37½ years to life in prison.) City officials conceded the call center wouldn't have been able to locate the caller because it lacked the proper technology. Rochester has since upgraded its 911 system.
New York City's 911 problems came under scrutiny in January 2003, when four boys drowned after calling 911 from a sinking rowboat. Rescuers didn't start looking until 14 hours later because they couldn't pinpoint the location of the late-night call. New York City upgraded its 911 system to receive wireless location information last August.
After nearly two years of wrangling, Congress in December 2004 approved the creation of a national oversight office to spearhead 911 upgrades and $250 million a year in federal grants to reward states that don't divert 911 funds to other purposes. At a conference in early March, officials from the Transportation and Commerce departments, which would have jointly run the new central office, said federal belt-tightening made it unlikely that the new funds or new office would materialize anytime soon.
"We're stuck with what we've got," William Belote, chief of the Commerce Department's Emergency Planning and Public Safety Division, told the conference, noting there was only so much he could do with his current five-person staff. The budget deficit, he said, makes it "very, very challenging to get any additional money for the federal grant program."
May 12, 2005 Internet Calling's Downside: Failing to Link Callers to 911 Low-Cost Services Gain Popularity, But Regulators Have Concerns; Routed to Recorded Message By SHAWN YOUNG Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
When Cheryl Waller's seemingly healthy 3½-month-old daughter, Julia, suddenly stopped breathing in March, she immediately grabbed the phone and dialed 911. She repeatedly got a recording that began by saying, "If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911."
In a panic, Ms. Waller raced to a neighbor who called 911. But Julia was dead by the time help arrived.
Ms. Waller, who lives in Deltona, Fla., with her husband and four other children, didn't get through to 911 because she was receiving her phone service from Vonage Holdings Corp., an Internet-based phone company that doesn't connect to 911 the way that most people have come to expect. "I think we lost our daughter because of this," says Ms. Waller, who says doctors attributed her daughter's death to sudden infant death syndrome.
A Vonage spokeswoman says: "Our hearts go out to the Waller family. We are going to do everything possible to prevent this from happening again."
Long a security blanket for callers, connecting with 911 service has become an issue with the advent of new technologies. Emergency operators, for example, don't always automatically know where a person is calling from when he or she dials 911 on a cellphone. But the 911 problem is particularly acute with some Internet-based phone service.
Not only is it often difficult for operators to pinpoint where someone is calling from, but in some cases they never even reach a real 911 operator. That is because calls from some Internet-based phone services are relegated to what is essentially a second-class status compared with normal 911.
Calls from these services sometimes ring at general or administrative numbers at emergency-call centers instead of connecting directly to 911 operators. In some places, those general numbers aren't staffed after normal business hours. Even when the calls are answered, the person on the other end may not be a trained emergency operator and can't see the caller's address automatically.
Ms. Waller wound up at one of those non-emergency phone numbers.
Regulators are growing increasingly concerned about the 911 problem. Attorneys general in Texas and Connecticut, where consumers also were unable to reach 911 in life-threatening emergencies, are now suing Vonage for deceptive advertising. They charge that Vonage -- the nation's largest Internet calling company with more than 650,000 customers -- doesn't properly alert customers to the shortcomings of its 911 service.
The problem is also on the Federal Communications Commission's radar screen. As early as next week, the FCC could announce that it will require Internet-based phone companies like AT&T Corp'.s CallVantage and Verizon Communications Inc.'s Voicewing to offer full 911 service. The logistics of doing that are more complicated for some carriers than others. AT&T, for instance, also offers conventional service and can take advantage of its existing facilities in some areas. For all the affected companies, the process could take time and money.
Lured by prices as low as $14.99 a month for 500 minutes of local and long-distance calling, more than a million people have replaced their conventional phones with Internet-based service -- and millions more are expected to follow in coming years, analysts say. But as Internet calling takes off, many consumers aren't fully aware of the 911 problem
-- and don't know that among the various Internet-calling services, there are some big differences. For example, cable companies, some of which also offer Internet-based calling, don't have the same problems with 911. That is because the customer's phone number is linked to an actual address. (As with all Internet-based calling, however, the service won't work if the power goes out or if the user's Internet connection is down.)
Permanent solutions to the problem are complicated for technological and regulatory reasons. Vonage says part of the problem with connecting its service to 911 is that in many areas the regional Bell companies control the systems that connect calls to 911, and the Bells have been reluctant to grant Vonage access to the system. For their part, the Bells have expressed concerns about keeping the 911 system safe from hackers. Some industry observers say the disputes largely reflect differences over the terms of connecting.
Because of recent problems, Vonage is spending millions of dollars to set up a program, similar to the OnStar system available on General Motors Corp. vehicles, that would offer emergency callers a live response. Callers who aren't connected properly with 911 would reach a rep who would take information and immediately summon help.
"No failure of 911 is ever acceptable," says Jeffrey Citron, Chairman and CEO of Vonage. He says the company has handled more than 100,000 emergency calls without incident, but "we have a handful of situations where things didn't go as expected."
Unlike traditional phones, where a wire is plugged into the wall at a specific address, calls routed over the Internet aren't fixed to a location. To further complicate matters, some Internet phone providers let customers choose any area code, and take their numbers with them if they move or travel. As a result, someone with a Chicago area code, for example, could actually be calling 911 from Los Angeles.
To get 911 service from some Internet-calling services, customers have to register their address, on top of the normal signup process. But even some customers who take that extra step -- as Ms. Waller did -- are surprised to find that their emergency calls are relegated to second-class status.
Like Ms. Waller, Andrea McClanaghan, of Torrington, Conn., also a Vonage customer, got a recording when her nine-month-old son, Owen, who had been ill with a stomach virus, had a seizure.
"He stopped breathing and we couldn't get help for him," says Ms. McClanaghan, whose son has recovered. "I was hysterical."
They didn't realize that even though they had registered for 911, their calls to 911 centers could still go unanswered by a human.
New York City has objected strenuously to the practice of sending calls to general administrative numbers instead of a 911 operator. In a letter to the FCC last month, city officials said the local 911 system handles about 30,000 calls a day.
The letter, from the head of the city's department of information technology and telecommunications, said Vonage and several other Internet-based companies are, without permission, sending emergency calls to "a single phone sitting on an administrative desk. The only relationship of this phone to the city's 911 system is that the desk happens to be located in the same building where the city's main 911 call center is also located. This phone isn't equipped to serve an emergency response or public safety function."
Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schultz said the company has asked repeatedly for an alternative but got nowhere until recently.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says his office has gotten 10 to 20 complaints about emergency calls with Internet phone services. Vonage, he says, buries details about 911 deep down in a very long "user agreement" that few people take the time to read. "The disclosures are incomplete and incomprehensible," says Mr. Blumenthal.
Vonage says it is addressing those concerns. "We think our disclosures are good," says Ms. Schultz, "but we're willing to work with the attorneys general."
Ms. McClanaghan and Ms. Waller say Vonage customer-service reps were dismissive when they called to ask why they hadn't been able to reach911.
In a letter to Florida's Attorney General, Ms. Waller said the Vonage customer-service representative laughed when she told her that Julia had died. "She laughed and stated that they were unable to revive a baby," Ms. Waller says it took the company 11 days to get back to her. Ms. McClanaghan said it took at least four for her to hear back.
"We've taken corrective action," said Mr. Citron, Vonage's CEO. He said the company has established a special team to handle customer service calls related to 911. She said customer-service representatives were struggling in an unfamiliar situation.
Vonage and other Internet-based carriers say they are working on solutions that give customers full emergency service. AT&T says it plans to have full 911 service for about 70% of its Internet calling customers by the end of the year.911 HITCHES
Problems that can occur with some Internet-calling services:
Customers forget to register their addresses -- or don't update them when they move
Customers call 911 but get routed to numbers that may not be answered by live operators, particularly after hours.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR 911 CALL
A look at how the system works using various phone options
TYPE / DESCRIPTION / COMMENT
Traditional Phone / Phone line is linked to a fixed location and call is connected directly to live emergency operators who automatically see the caller 's location on a computer screen. / Extremely reliable
Cellphone / Calls to 911 are traced by satellites or other technology. / Problems can arise from dropped calls, imprecise location information and antiquated 911 answering centers.
Internet Calling From Cable Companies / Generally works the same way as traditional service because the number is linked to a fixed address and agreements are in place for connecting directly to the 911 system. / Extremely reliable
Calling From Internet-based Carriers / Caller registers an address (usually their home address), and a database routes the call to the emergency center nearest the address. / Even some callers who register their addresses can have calls sent to non-emergency numbers at 911 centers.