Sprint PCS debuts GPS-equipped wireless phone for 911 calls

Sprint PCS Group introduced today what it called the nation's first GPS-enabled phone, capable of locating a mobile caller within 50 meters once the company completes build-out of the network infrastructure needed to support the federal government's emergency location service that all cellular carriers are required to offer as of today.

The new phone, manufactured by Samsung Telecommunications America in Dallas, incorporates a chip that helps determine a caller's position by tapping into highly accurate longitude and latitude information broadcast by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. It also features a wireless Web browser, a personal information manager with calendar, wireless mail and a phone book capable of storing 199 numbers. The phone will be priced at $149.99.

Though Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint PCS started selling the GPS-enabled phones today, the company emphasized that the location service won't work until it completes network upgrades needed to pass the location information on to police, fire and emergency service dispatchers in Public Safety Access Points (PSAP).

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission Sept. 20, Luisa Lancetti the Washington-based vice president of regulatory affairs for Sprint PCS, said the company has run into equipment and software problems with its two major equipment suppliers, Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J., and Nortel Networks Corp. in Brampton, Ontario. The problems have delayed the rollout of upgrades needed to support automatic location identification (ALI) services, Lancetti said.

Lancetti said Sprint PCS doesn't expect to have its network ready for ALI in markets where it uses Lucent equipment until May. In markets where the company uses Nortel equipment, Lancetti said, Sprint PCS will "meet its network installation schedule of August." Lancetti added that Sprint PCS has begun testing of GPS-enabled phones and the supporting network in Rhode Island and "has successfully performed location calculation on hundreds of calls,'' including transmission of location information to the Rhode Island PSAP.

As required by the FCC, Sprint PCS plans to sell only GPS-enabled phones as of Dec. 31, 2002, and expects 10% of all phones sold between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 to be GPS-equipped. The company also expects to reach 30% penetration with those phones by June 30, 2002. But, Lancetti said, the economic downturn since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks makes it especially difficult to predict further consumer purchasing decisions.

Three public safety organizations, the National Emergency Number Association in Columbus, Ohio; its affiliate, the National Association of State 911 Administrators; and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International Inc. in Daytona Beach, Fla., dismissed that statement in a filing with the FCC on Sept. 28. "We think it is premature for the FCC to accept Sprint's speculation that 'the recent economic downturn' will weigh more heavily on handset purchasing decisions than, say, the heightened perceptions of the need for security attributable, at least in part, to the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington," the organizations said in their FCC filing (see story).

All cellular carriers are supposed to comply with an FCC mandate to offer wireless location services starting today. They can choose either a handset-based system using GPS-chips embedded in the phone, as Sprint has done, or a network based system, as Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless and Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless Services Inc. plan to offer. Network-based location systems use sophisticated triangulation to locate a caller based on his position relative to cellular towers.

Even though the FCC issued its original location requirements in 1996, the industry has been slow to roll out the service, and over the past six months, the major national carriers, as well as a host of regional ones, have filed waivers with the FCC asking for an extension of the Oct. 1 deadline. Last week, Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington said that since location technology hasn't been successfully integrated into the cellular carriers networks, a nationwide rollout by Oct 1. "is an impossibility."

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said the slow rollout of GPS-enabled phones by the cellular carriers is partially a technical problem and partially a cost recovery issue. "This is very expensive, and the carriers wonder how they are going to get paid," Mathias said.

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