By Jeffrey Krauss, Roger Dodger and 
President of Telecommunications 
and Technology Policy

Telecom companies in the U.S. have public obligations. Cable companies must provide channel capacity for local government programming and for broadcast stations, and they must carry emergency alerts. Telephone companies must provide "universal service," must support 911 public safety calls and must support wiretaps by authorized law enforcement agencies.

But cellular phone companies don't want to shoulder their public obligations. In areas such as 911 calling, digital wiretaps and broadcast of emergency messages, the cellular phone industry has fought tooth-and-nail against additional public service obligations. They've argued that the capability was technically difficult or impossible, but the real reason was the cost.

The most overt battle is over 911 position location. When you dial 911 from your home phone, your phone company supplies your address to the public safety call taker. When you call 911 from a cellular phone, the cellular phone company provides no location data. In 1996, the FCC adopted rules requiring that cellular phone operators provide the location of 911 callers by October 2001. Today, nearly one-third of all 911 calls come from cellular phones, but many callers don't know where they are. Far from being a public service, cellular phone 911 calls are becoming a public danger.

Since 1996, several companies have developed "network" solutions that augment the cellular phone network. They work by receiving a cellular phone's transmissions at several diverse points and computing the calling location using either time difference of arrival, directional antennas, comparing signal strengths or combinations of these techniques. Other companies developed "handset" solutions that require GPS receivers in the phone handset.

So which cellular phone companies will meet the October 2001 deadline? Evidently, none. The FCC required them each to pick a technology last November, but they keep changing their minds. And now they're asking the FCC for waivers, to extend the implementation date. Waivers have been requested by Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, VoiceStream, AT&T Wireless, Nextel and others.

Those that picked handset solutions say that the handset vendors won't have GPS-capable handsets available in time. Those that picked network solutions say that this technology isn't accurate enough. The vendors, of course, disagree.

When Cingular filed for its waiver, it submitted test results showing how accurate the technology can be. But it asked the FCC to keep these results confidential! The FCC denied that request and required public disclosure.

The cellular phone trade association's latest ploy is to blame the public safety agencies, saying their call centers are not ready to accept and display the additional location data.

Sure, it will cost money to implement any of the technical solutions. And sure, the revenue potential from location-based services is uncertain. But between their excuses for not meeting the deadline, trying to blame the vendors, and trying to hide the true data, it sure looks like the cellular phone industry is putting profit above its public responsibilities.

But that's not the only 911 location issue. Over industry objections several years ago, the cellular phone industry was required to complete calls to 911 even from phones that are not subscribed to any cellular service. So some public service groups collect old cellular phones and hand them out to the elderly and the poor for emergency calling purposes. But the public safety agencies have asked for a way to call back the 911 caller in case the call gets disconnected. These phones don't have a regular phone number, because numbers are assigned by the cellular phone operator, and these phones aren't actually in service. Cingular, Sprint and their trade association said it was technically impossible to temporarily assign a phone number to these phones. But a Texas inventor submitted plans to the FCC for accomplishing it.

Another issue is emergency alert broadcasts to cellular phones. It is easy to imagine a cellular phone operator sending a weather warning to cellular phones in the affected area. But they don't. There is even an industry technical standard for accomplishing this. And the vendors have formed the Cellular Emergency Alert Services association to try to push the operators. But again, the cellular phone operators see the cost, but they don't see any revenues.

And finally, there is CALEA. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act requires telecom carriers to modify their equipment, facilities and services to ensure that they are able to comply with authorized electronic surveillance. Digital telecom technologies are much more difficult to intercept than analog, and the FBI got Congress to pass a law requiring phone companies to give them the same access to digital transmissions that they already had to analog. The FCC adopted rules to implement the law, and then AirTouch and others went to court to try to get them thrown out. Privacy groups were concerned about the rights of citizens, but the cell phone companies complained about the costs. For the most part, the rules survived. Wireline phone companies had until June 30, 2000 to modify their networks to permit authorized wiretaps, but after complaining about the cost and technical difficulty, wireless companies got an additional 15 months.