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3 towers, Polaris software add up to E911 solution

Polaris hopes to take the stress out of E911.

“We are a location-technology company,” said Bob Dressler, Polaris’ vice president of technology. “We are a software-based solution.”

The E911 mandate hangs like a cloud over the U.S. wireless industry. The Federal Communications Commission requires that the nation’s carriers be able to locate subscribers who dial emergency services. Such a technology seems relatively straightforward at first glance, but has grown into a major challenge.

Most solutions to the E911 dilemma involve significant investments in either networks or handsets, or both. And several technologies aiming to solve those problems have not lived up to expectations. Thus, E911 stress levels are high, and a software-based solution could come as a welcome relief.

“Our operation is completely transparent to the network,” Polaris’ Dressler said. “We’re capitalizing on measurements that a cell phone makes in the normal process of operations.”

Dressler said Polaris is able to satisfy the FCC’s E911 Phase II requirements by employing some advanced calculations and algorithms-and nothing else. The company said its low-cost server can interpret the standard information generated by wireless networks and extrapolate a user’s location-in some cases as accurately as 120 feet.

“It’s a very reliable solution,” Dressler said. “We’re as reliable as the cellular network.”

Polaris’ technology essentially creates a digital facsimile of the geographic area around a carrier’s cell tower. Then, when a user’s phone interacts with that tower, Polaris’ server makes a pattern match using high-performance algorithms. Since mobile phones are constantly interacting with nearby cell towers, Polaris’ technology can basically dip into that data, analyze it and then translate it into location information.

“In testing that we’ve done we’ve shown that we do meet the FCC’s E911 mandate requirements,” Dressler said.

However, Polaris can only meet those stringent requirements if a user is in range of at least three cell towers. The company can still glean location information from fewer than three towers, but it won’t be able to meet the FCC’s Phase II requirements. Dressler said such performance is better than most network-based location solutions, but behind that of handset-based solutions that rely on GPS signals.

Conversely, Dressler said the accuracy of Polaris’ technology improves in urban environments where there are four or more cell towers. Since the company’s technology takes into account geographic information, it can extrapolate location data even in crowded downtown surroundings. Dressler said such capabilities make Polaris’ offering more powerful than both network- and handset-based location solutions, which suffer performance problems in dense urban environments.

“The denser the environment is, our technology actually works better,” he said.

Although a variety of location-technology companies have claimed similar advances and services, Polaris has notable backing from Triton PCS, a regional carrier in the mid-Atlantic region. The carrier is using Polaris’ technology for its TDMA network.

Polaris, founded in 1999 with several million in venture funding, soon plans to upgrade its technology to support GSM networks. The company next year plans to add CDMA support, which Dressler said could open a major new opportunity. CDMA carriers are required to be able to locate 90 percent of their subscribers by the end of next year, a milestone some may not meet. Thus, Dressler said, Polaris could become an attractive proposition for the CDMA community.

Dressler said Polaris is in talks with several other regional wireless carriers in the United States and is also looking to expand into Europe.

Although Polaris lauds its technology, the company faces stiff competition. Indeed, TeleCommunication Systems Inc. recently announced its eighth carrier deal. The company said Ntelos Wireless will use its location-determining services to meet the FCC’s Phase II E911 requirements. The technology works when Ntelos customers with Phase II-capable handsets are within areas where Ntelos has deployed TCS’ technology.

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