December 4, 2013
Amid all the privacy concerns about cellphone tracking, one important group is arguing that location data isn't precise enough: emergency responders. Police and others say 911 dispatchers are having trouble sending help to callers who use cellphones. The reason: unlike a landline, cellphones provide just a rough estimate-with a possible radius of a few hundred yards-of the caller's location. Data released this summer renewed attention to the problem and set off a debate over the adequacy of the tracking data that cellphone carriers share with emergency dispatchers. "The location of the caller is the most important thing," said Eric Parry, who oversees 911 calling technology used in Utah. "If I have a 'what,' that helps me know what I need to send. If I don't have a 'where,' then the 'what' doesn't help me in the least."
The proliferation of cellphones has been both a blessing and a headache for law-enforcement officers and other emergency responders. More people with cellphones means it is easier than ever to make a quick call for help. But if a caller can't speak or isn't familiar with his or her location, cellphones make it harder to find them, particularly if they are indoors. Around 38% of households have ditched landlines and rely solely on cellphones, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more people are using them for 911 calls. In California alone, 75% of 911 calls placed in the state during a recent 18-month period were made using cellphones.
In reaction to the shift, 911 dispatchers in recent years have begun asking callers first where they are, rather than the nature of their emergency. The tracking technology used by wireless carriers is imperfect, and a recent shift has added new complications. Older technology was less accurate but provided location data immediately. Now, cellphone location data typically gets to 911 dispatchers in two stages. It initially provides the location of the cell tower being used by the phone, but such towers can cover wide areas that overlap buildings in cities.
The second stage comes from GPS technology, which is much more accurate outdoors, but takes roughly 15 to 30 seconds before it is available to dispatchers, a big delay given that many 911 operators try to dispatch responders within 60 seconds. "Right now, there is no high-yield, high-accuracy, zero latency 911 technologies out there," said Eric Hagerson, senior regulatory affairs manager at T-Mobile US Inc. "There are tradeoffs." It isn't clear whether the tracking information is the same as what is collected in call "metadata" that has been at the center of federal surveillance programs, such as phone numbers people dialed and the location from which they were calling. But it isn't the same technology used by smartphone apps such as Google Inc.'s Google Maps, which rely partly on Wi-Fi hotspots they have mapped to help determine a phone's location.
About two years ago, Danita Crombach noticed that an increasing number of 911 calls coming into her dispatch center in Ventura County, Calif., lacked detailed information about the caller's location. This summer, Ms. Crombach examined a little known database of 911 calls in five jurisdictions across California and found the situation was widespread. Roughly 55% of the 911 calls placed using a cellphone in California during March included only information about the location of the cell tower transmitting the call, with a radius that could extend for miles, and not the caller's actual whereabouts. Ms. Crombach's report raised alarms in the public-safety sector, and regulators asked 911 centers across the country to examine similar data. Agencies across seven states now have done so, and the data show that in some places as many as two-thirds of wireless calls end without dispatchers having received specific location, or "phase II," data.
Wireless carriers say they are providing accurate phase II data more than 90% of the time, but dispatchers aren't refreshing their systems during each call to access the updated data, which is available only after a lag of about 30 seconds because of the recent change in technology. "This is not some indication of a major problem," said Donald Brittingham, vice president of public safety policy at Verizon Communications Inc. "There may be some time issues associated with it, but we're also improving in that area." Carriers say location data has actually become more accurate in the past several years, as more of them have switched to GPS-based technology that can locate callers within around 50 meters, or about 55 yards. With older technology, it could be within 300 meters. Even so, location accuracy is "nowhere near where the public needs it to be," said Steve Souder, who runs a 911 call center in Fairfax County, Va.
In 2009, Julius Genachowski, then head of the Federal Communications Commission, visited Mr. Souder's call center to get a better understanding of how the 911 system worked. When he called 911 from the dispatch center using his cellphone, the system said Mr. Genachowski was located inside a Costco store, about a quarter of a mile away, near the meat section. After waiting for the system to refresh with more accurate information, the dispatcher's computer said he was closer to the store's pizza and hotdog vendors. Finding callers indoors where GPS signals aren't as strong is a particular weakness of the current system. "We fully acknowledge that indoor is not going to be as accurate," Verizon's Mr. Brittingham said. But the carrier is "working hard to make sure that we're doing the best we can to keep the improvements moving along."
Scott Freitag, who runs a 911 call center in Salt Lake City, estimates that the percentage of callers who aren't able to say where they are is less than 5%. But with more than half a million 911 calls to his call center each year, "We lose people, because we can't find them fast enough," he said. Questions about 911 tracking ability gained national attention a few years ago, after 21-year-old Denise Amber Lee was kidnapped outside her home in southern Florida and later found murdered, despite having managed to make a nearly six-minute call to 911 from the back of her kidnapper's vehicle. Her husband, Nathan Lee, has spent the past five years arguing for improved accuracy in fixing the location of 911 calls made using cellphones. "It's extremely important," he said. In November, one of Ms. Crombach's counterparts at a nearby call center received a 911 call from a woman in Oxnard, Calif., just after 7 a.m. Call takers couldn't understand what she was saying because she was tied up and gagged. Yet emergency responders arrived within three minutes. "The good news is she was calling from a landline phone," Ms. Crombach said. Wall Street Journal
Never have so many been spurred to such frenzy by so few. By "few," of course, we mean John Malone. The 72-year-old Mr. Malone, the original cable guy, has sidled back into the industry he helped create decades earlier. In March, his Libery Media bought a 27% stake in Charter Communications, a midsize operator with a laggard history. Mr. Malone announced the time was ripe for consolidation. That's all it took.
Time Warner Cable, his intimated target, is up 40% since the summer. Comcast, the nation's biggest cable company, has been dragged into the discussion as a possible white knight. Cablevision and Cox are rumored as alternative targets and/or buyers. Wall Street analysts now talk of an industry-reshaping deal wave as a foregone conclusion since Mr. Malone dusted off his magic flute. The impresario has made his thinking clear enough, yet most renditions focus on the narrow if neuralgic issue of programming costs. Combining Charter's four million subscribers with Time Warner's 11 million supposedly would improve the new company's bargaining leverage vis-a-vis program suppliers - in theory.
Arguably, Time Warner destabilized the whole industry last summer when it proved it couldn't hold out against CBS's exorbitant fee demands. In the same quarter that Time Warner eventually ran up the white flag, it reported losing 300,000 customers-as if households no longer would deign to do business with an operator who deprived them of a few episodes of "Under the Dome." One big doubt afflicts the bargaining-leverage theory of consolidation's benefits, though. Time Warner already was the nation's second biggest operator, controlling indispensable markets like New York City and Los Angeles. Its heft and strategic position didn't save it from retreating like a frightened little girl in its showdown with CBS. Hardly obvious is that being a bit bigger would have altered the outcome.
But listen closely: Mr. Malone sees cabledom's "scale" challenge as involving much bigger stakes than just getting on even terms with content suppliers. The cable industry is both blessed and cursed by its history as a bunch of noncompeting local franchises. Cursed, because no operator can achieve a national footprint the way its suppliers (e.g., CBS, HBO, ESPN) or the way its emerging competitors (e.g., Netflix, Amazon, YouTube) can.
But cable is also blessed. In most of the country, it owns the premier last-mile network, upgradeable at low cost to meet customers' rising bandwidth demand. And as noncompeting monopolists, cable operators in theory are free to cooperate with each other and engage in extensive joint ventures without triggering antitrust scrutiny. Mr. Malone sees salvation here. He sees the cable industry pooling not just R&D dollars to advance broadband technology, but to create its own Netflix-like programming packages to market nationally. The industry just needs "fewer big players," which will make it "easier to get alignment."
Here's where we pull out our little gray cloud and rain on Mr. Malone's vision. While there's much to be said for consolidation and cooperation, cable's strength is still ownership of the local last mile. At bottom, Mr. Malone and others want to preserve cable's function as a program-bundling middleman. Why bother? Bundling programming in our world is becoming a crowded trade. Everyone from Verizon and Intel to Amazon and DISH is eyeing the same opportunity. With his characteristic slight exaggeration, Google's Eric Schmidt recently told an audience that only writing a big enough check stands between one of these "over the top" players and NFL games being broadcast over the Web. The Internet, he claimed (this is where exaggeration comes in), is already up to the job of delivering live, hi-def sports to 40 million viewers simultaneously.
Mr. Malone understands all this, so why squander the rents flowing from cable's main asset-strategic control of the last mile-by bidding against Google, Apple, Amazon and others for program rights? Frankly, a better plan might be to soak them for delivering their programming to cable's end users with guaranteed quality and without triggering data caps or usage charges on the viewer's end. Cablers could remake their own customer relationship. Instead of annoying households by trying to pass along higher and higher programming costs for shows watched by fewer and fewer people in the fragmented audience, cable could claim it's working hard to keep customer broadband bills low by making sure content suppliers like Google and Netflix pay their "fair share."
This will be salable to programmers and regulators, however, only if the cablers aren't simultaneously competing to offer their own content bundles. Cable has been lucky lately. Net neutrality, the principle by which regulators have sought to regulate how operators use their networks, has been dying a natural and legal death. Mr. Malone and big cable ought to be leery of adopting a business strategy guaranteed to resurrect it. Wall Street Journal
Two prominent lawmakers want to create a new playbook for the media and telecommunications industries. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, said Tuesday that the Communications Act, last updated in 1996, is in desperate need of a rewrite. "When the Communications Act was updated almost 18 years ago, no one could have dreamed of the many innovations and advancements that make the Internet what it is today," Walden said in a statement. "Written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art, the Communications Act is now painfully out of date."
Upton and Walden held a Google chat and were joined by former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who said a rewrite is "absolutely needed" because the current rules are "increasingly irrelevant." Neither Upton nor Walden went into detail about what changes he would seek to the act, which the FCC uses in its oversight of media and telecommunications including cable and satellite television. Any tweaking could take at least one year to come to fruition. The lawmakers said it was their goal to have a new Communications Act in 2015. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has been a key telecommunications lawmaker over the past 30 years, cautioned Upton and Walden to act with care. "Changes should not be made simply for change's sake, but rather based on clear and documented need," Dingell said in a statement. "We should approach this in a balanced fashion in order to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry." Michael Powell, a former chairman of the FCC and currently chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., the chief lobbying arm for the cable industry, praised Upton and Walden's announcement. "We have long maintained that many of the laws governing the communications marketplace are frayed," Powell said. "Since their creation, the landscape has been transformed - new, unimagined products and services as well as dramatic changes in market structure." Los Angeles Times
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