A new AT&T update could make 911 calls more effective

Before the invention of mobile phones, determining the origin site of a 911 call was simple. By definition, a call for help made over a landline had to come from a fixed position. After all, you wouldn't drive down the highway or go hiking in a park if you lived in someone's house. However, the bulk of adults—68 percent, according to National Center for Health Statistics statistics from 2021—live in houses without landlines. Unsurprisingly, mobile phones make up the majority of 911 calls.

Although detecting the position of a smartphone during a 911 call is more difficult than detecting the location of a landline, AT&T said last week that their location-detection technology for mobile phones will be much improved. Here's how it now works, how it's evolving, and how it compares to the competitors.

From landlines to cell phones 

According to Chris Sambar, an executive vice president of AT&T Network, determining a location that is coming in over a landline is "easy." "A landline is associated with a specific location.
“A landline’s registered at a specific address.” The call coming in “gives location information.” 

The position of a mobile phone is usually determined by AT&T relaying the signal to the towers.
“We use the cell towers to get the location of the caller,” Sambar explains. According to him, this can offer location data over a 10-mile radius. “Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where the caller is,” he says.

Behind the scenes, an erroneous location might create delays since the call must be routed to the right public-safety answering point (known as a PSAP in the industry). Consider making a call from the boundary of a state or county, and it is picked up by a cell site in another region; your call might be routed to a dispatcher at a PSAP in another region. The authorities must then transfer the call to the appropriate location. This new, more exact strategy should aid in resolving the issue.

It works because it takes into account more than simply mobile towers for AT&T customers, according to Sambar. “We now have more data from the device, using a combination of GPS, wifi, [atmospheric] pressure sensor in the device, [and] accelerometer in the device,” he explains. 
As a result, location accuracy has improved: according to AT&T, the system can now find the caller within 164 feet.

According to AT&T and Intrado, a business that specializes on 911-related technologies, this helps get the call to the proper PSAP and also offers the dispatcher improved location information.

In terms of privacy, AT&T claims that comprehensive location monitoring occurs only when a call is made in an emergency. "This can only happen when a 911 call is being initiated and processed," explains Adan Pope, Intrado's chief technology officer. "Neither before nor after." (A 2019 Motherboard study revealed issues regarding location monitoring, bounty hunters, and data from the carriers, as the Verge notes out.)

What are other carriers up to?

The good news is that AT&T and Intrado are the first companies in the United States to offer a service with this degree of precision on a big scale.“The nationwide rollout is scheduled to be completed by the end of June,”AT&T said in a statement, noting that the service was currently available in 16 states and Guam.

“This technology is irrespective of the local public safety answering point’s technology sophistication,” explains Nate Brogan, a senior vice president with Intrado. “So we’re not dependent on any local infrastructure or any other advanced technologies that may have already been deployed in those regions to accommodate it.” 

This is when things start to become a bit more complicated. T-Mobile, an AT&T rival, said in late 2020 that it will begin rolling out location-based routing, which uses a person's location to route their call to the best PSAP, "in parts of Texas and Washington State".

Since then, the list has increased. In an email, a T-Mobile spokesperson said: “We offer the [location-based routing] capability nationwide and are working with PSAPs across the country to implement it.” 

Washington, DC, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington are the locations where it is now available. (A state's inclusion on the list does not imply that the updated location service is operational throughout the state.)

In a phone interview, the same official said that they work with PSAPs as they roll out the new service, and that their location accuracy is within the same 164-foot range as AT&T's; he also stated that no technology improvements are necessary, similar to AT&T's.
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