[The Star] Ottawa's recent efforts to compel wireless providers to upgrade 911 systems so distressed callers can be located on a map suffer from potentially troubling omissions and deficiencies, a new report has found.
Canada's wireless companies will be required by February 2010 to have the capability to locate the position of 911 calls from cellphones, using GPS and network triangulation technologies.
The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission outlined the new requirements five months ago amid criticism that Canada had fallen behind countries such as the United States, which have had similar capabilities for years. Such information "can make the difference between life and death," the agency said.
But a report released yesterday by research firm IDC Canada notes that, unlike the U.S., the new rules don't require carriers to immediately provide location information for roaming customers, or for people using pre-paid phones.
As well, the report notes there are no requirements to provide "mid-call" location updates, which can help track callers who are walking or in moving vehicles. "The stuff that's being deferred isn't obscure, Mickey Mouse sorts of things," said report author Lawrence Surtees. "Roamers and pre-paid users? That's a whole lot of people."
Canadian rules now require wireless firms to give the location of the nearest cell tower, which can be of little help outside of urban areas where towers are far apart. Emergency calls from traditional phones can be traced directly to the street address of a home or business.
The concern is that more than half of all 911 calls are now made using cellphones, and that number is likely to increase as cell prices fall.
Industry officials say technical issues need to be resolved before reliable location details can be provided for all cellphone customers.
"The U.S. does have standards that we don't have," said Bernard Lord, president of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. "But when you dig deeper, you realize they're having a hard time meeting those standards."
Lord said wireless providers are spending "millions" this year on upgrades, but stressed they are only one part of the country's 911 infrastructure, with municipalities and some provinces also playing a key role in maintaining emergency call centres and associated systems.
The CRTC has given the wireless industry until August to suggest technical solutions to the problems of roaming and pre-paid users, but noted that even the U.S. rules require carriers to provide those services only where technically possible.
Surtees suggested the delay likely has more to do with carriers being reluctant to spend on upgrades, despite the fact they collect $165 million a year in monthly 911 fees from subscribers.
Glitches mar 911 upgrade - Rules won't help pre-paid cellphone users, roamers who call in emergency: Report