FCC approves delay in cellular location rollout

The Federal Communications Commission granted all nationwide cellular carriers extra time to start phasing in E911 automatic location identification services, but the agency still expects them to meet a 2005 deadline for offering such service to 95 percent of their customers.

All cellular carriers were supposed to start offering locations services this past Monday, but over the past six months all six nationwide carriers have asked the FCC for extensions, saying that problems with handset vendors, switch manufacturers and location service providers would make it difficult to locate local callers within the 50 meters to 100 meters mandated by the FCC. The industry's lobbying army, the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, described it as an "impossible" task.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement that he was "disappointed and unsatisfied" with the industry's progress on location services. But, he said, the waivers the FCC granted today "are designed to pursue single-mindedly one objective: the full availability of enhanced 911 by the original deadline established by the commission.'' Tom Wheeler, CTIA president, said in a statement that the FCC's ruling will bring "certainty to the process of E911 rollout," adding that the industry will "continue to work diligently to meet the final deadline."

The FCC's ruling today covered five of the nationwide carriers: AT&T Wireless Group Inc., Cingular Wireless Inc., Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint PCS Group and Verizon Wireless Inc. Last September, the FCC approved a delayed location service rollout plan for VoiceStream Wireless Corp. in Bellevue, Wash.

The FCC said it had imposed rigid time lines on the carriers, and some analysts said they wondered if these new deadlines can be met. For example, both Cingular and Nextel are required to ensure that 25 percent of the phones they sell and activate between now and the end of the year are location capable, even though neither offers such a phone for sale today.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., called the FCC action a challenge that could require carriers to offer sales incentives and subsidies to promote the sale of such phones. He called the new timetables "a mad dash to compliance."

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