Sprint PCS, Verizon ask for more time to implement e911

With major wireless network operators Sprint PCS Group and Verizon Wireless Inc. asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a delay in the October implementation of mandatory wireless technology for emergency services, the rollout of commercial location-based services riding on top of that technology will also be slowed.

The FCC requires that all wireless operators create the technology, called e911, by Oct. 1. The technology will enable municipal emergency services to pinpoint the location of any 911 call made using a wireless handset.

The carriers are forced to use an expensive location technology called GPS (Global Positioning System), which will require network upgrades as well as additional chipsets inside the handset. Triangulation, the less costly location technology that uses only fixed cellular towers, is simply not accurate enough to be useful.

"Triangulation is not accurate when someone is in a mall and on the street. To make it extremely targeted, location has to be measured in the form of meters, not city blocks," said Tim Scannell, an analyst at Mobile Insights in Mountain View, California.

Most of the carriers who have looked at location-based services believe that accuracy is key to monetizing location services, said Kanwar Chadha, founder and vice president Sirf Technology, in San Jose, California. Sirf is a supplier of a two-chip GPS chipset solution for devices.

"If I want to find a route to the closest Italian restaurant, it requires an accuracy range of from five to 15 meters, not 100 to 300 meters which is what most of the network based schemes [triangulation] achieve," Chadha said.

Each carrier has asked for new implementation dates based on its own individual technology needs. Sprint PCS offered three reasons for the request of a delay, including delays from Lucent and Nortel in shipping the needed switching software, and delays by both the local exchange carriers and the Public Safety Access Points, run by the public utilities in each municipality, in upgrading their networks.

Although commercial services based on a consumer's location are still possible with handhelds that have GPS capability, the business model for most location services relies on the ubiquity of the cell phone.

"Deployment of location-based services will be slower than people thought, especially for those companies that were selling to the operators," said Lee Hancock, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Go2 Systems, a widely licensed supplier of location-based information directories in Irvine, California.

Some services that do not require a precise location, such as Go2 directories, are already in place and receiving millions of hits per month.

"We have over 15 million locations in our database and a million users. Last month we had 20 million page views," Hancock said.

Others in the industry agree that the commercial efforts will come after the rollout of e911 begins.

"The e911 handset-capable rollout runs over the course of a number of years. The dates extend all the way out to 2005. But we will see it before 100 percent penetration," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, in Washington.

The network operators are upgrading their systems at their own expense without any federal support in the form of a tax break or funding, Larsen said. He added that it is also for this reason that once the e911 rollout begins, users can expect to see a great many services offered by the operators in an attempt to recoup their expenses.

"We will be the touch point for customers, said Dan Wilinsky, a Sprint PCS spokesman.

Although Sprint requested a delay in e911 deployment, the company still believes it will be the first in the nation with location services.

"We are ahead of the game and we are testing our system in Rhode Island with a Samsung handset that should be for sale on a limited basis by the end of the year," Wilinsky said.

As to the fear that network operators might dominate the LBS market, Go2's Hancock believes this will not be the case.

"Competitive pressures will not enable them to do that. It is not the lynch pin that allows them to monetize at extraordinary levels," Hancock said.

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