CLAYTON, N.J.-With a gaggle of journalists and public officials present, the first user trial of an automatic location system for analog cellular 911 calls began with a flourish Jan. 22 at the Gloucester County Public Safety headquarters.

“This demonstrates so much about the country’s policy with respect to the airwaves,” said Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “As we auction the airwaves, we create opportunities for public benefit at the same time as they (the airwaves) are used for commercial purposes.”

Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association applauded the trial as a major advance in a significant public-private partnership. “Today we celebrate (both) a movement to the next plateau of wireless communications improving the security of Americans (as well as) the way the FCC codified the voluntary agreement between the wireless industry and 911 providers.”

Even if the trial proves technologically successful, Wheeler cautioned that many other milestones must be passed before wireless 911 automatic caller location can be deployed statewide in New Jersey and nationwide by the Oct. 1, 2000 federal deadline.

“Without diminishing the terrific technological accomplishment, harnessing the laws of physics is the easiest part,” he said. “We must also overcome inertia and politics. We need standardized rules, procedures and funding sources.”

None of the industry or government participants who addressed the press conference said they would or could place a dollar estimate on the cost of deploying the trial system. They said that so many players are involved, both in state and local government and in the wireless industry, that realistic estimates could not be tallied in time for the launch.

“A whole lot of missed dinners and vacations went into this,” said Donald A. Harris, president of Comcast Cellular Communications Inc., Philadelphia. “Today alone, a thousand of our subscribers will call 911, and sometimes their location can’t be pinpointed closer than five-to-10 miles.”

The irony of this ground breaking event in public safety is that many people who call 911 on their cellular phones don’t realize that wireless telecommunications don’t yet offer the same instant, accurate location capability as wireline telephony, a New Jersey State trooper and a Gloucester County, N.J., firefighter told RCR. The two public safety officers attributed the public’s ignorance to omission or underplaying of this critical information in advertisements for cellular service that tout the ability to call 911.

And so, Comcast Cellular Corp. customers driving along the 50 southernmost miles of the New Jersey Turnpike during the 90-day trial may not even be impressed that public safety officials now can pinpoint the location of about 70 percent of their 911 calls to within a radius of 410 feet. “The rest will be located to a less accurate degree,” even if they are in terrain without paved streets or other manmade landmarks, said Louis A. Stilp, general manager of The Associated Group Inc., Bala Cynwyd, Penn.


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