911 To Nowhere

Seven out of ten 911 emergency calls are made from mobile phones. What happens in rural areas when the cell phone coverage runs out?

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Ask rural residents where cell phone service is scarce, and they’ll describe their local coverage availability in great detail, identifying exact locations where they lose and regain service.  

For many rural folks this is a way of life. But while losing access to wireless service is a pain, it can also be a matter of personal safety.  

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 70 percent of all 911 calls are made from a cellular phone. But in rural areas dialing 911 from a wireless phone isn’t always an option. Having wireless coverage can be the difference between saving or losing a life or a home.  

Through ongoing data collection efforts of the National Broadband Map plan, the FCC and National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) are hoping to learn what areas lack wireless service. The National Broadband Map plan, launched by the FCC and the NTIA in February, includes data on broadband availability, speed capabilities, and, lastly, terrestrial and fixed-mobile wireless services. 

The National Broadband Map and the National Broadband Plan are among the first comprehensive approaches to examine existing wireless infrastructure; however, the current maps have many inaccuracies and lapses in data.  

According to Lucy Tutwiler, spokesperson for the Rural Cellular Association, “(T)he maps are still a work in progress and need a lot of work.  There’s also still some debate over what is an unserved or underserved area, which makes it even more difficult to determine which areas need coverage.”

Several federal agencies have jurisdiction over improving a nationwide broadband network and increasing emergency communications capacity, but a clear picture and actual statistics still do not exist. The information obtained from the maps does not tell you how much of the nation is left out of both digital and wireless coverage. 

“Many smaller, rural and regional carriers have provided information support to the FCC, but the maps are still incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, and there is no available statistic on how much of the country is covered with wireless service that we know of,” added Tutwiler.

For those in rural areas with an acute sense of their wireless coverage area, as well as rural broadband availability, the FCC encourages citizens to fill out a “broadband dead zone report.” The reports will be compiled over the next two years and the maps will be updated every six months. The first major update will be in mid July. 

Each of the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia will be continuously collecting data and updating their respective maps, while also contributing to the National Broadband Map. (For more information and to see your state’s map visit the National Broadband Map website.) 

Miranda Kessel
I got service again when I reached the area around Smithfield, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
The FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau hopes to use this information to help improve the current public safety communications network with the aspiration to upgrade to Enhanced 911. In E911, callers and emergency responders can use text messaging, pictures, and videos for emergency purposes. They also want service providers to have capabilities to locate an emergency caller’s exact coordinates.  

The original 911 Act was passed in 1999, and while the FCC has ambitious plans, according to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, there still may be some counties in the United States that lack basic 911 services.

When asked about current efforts for E911 and improving public safety communication in rural areas, Craig Scholl, a longtime senior emergency communicator in Clinton County, New York, said:

“It’s coming whether we realize it or not. It’s a consumer driven area of the economy and unfortunately the FCC is playing catch up. The FCC needs to step up to the plate to mandate standards for (wireless) companies to provide service.”

Lawmakers share these concerns too, with Senate Commerce Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) introducing the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act (S.911) earlier this month.  

 “We can bring first responders’ communications capability into the 21st century,” Sen. Rockefeller said in introducing the bill. “We can give them the ability to share and disseminate information quickly, including fingerprints, floor plans of burning buildings and photos and videos, instantly.”  

The legislation would establish a nationwide communications network for first responders by freeing up unused spectrum in the 10 megahertz “D Block” spectrum wave to establish a public safety and interoperable communications network.  

It would also allow the FCC to lease any unused spectrum for non-safety entities and administer auctions for existing licensees to sell portions of their unused spectrum. The bill’s final component requires the National Institute of Technology to conduct research and development of wireless technologies.  

The bill passed in committee by a 21-4 vote and is now awaiting Senate floor action. 

Vice President Joe Biden hosted a discussion on June 16 about establishing a nationwide and interoperable wireless network for first responders. Biden also unveiled the President’s official plan of transitioning to wireless broadband for public safety. (Included in the discussion were Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Congressional lawmakers, including Rockefeller, as well as public safety officials and stakeholders.)

The President’s plan is similar to the bipartisan bill passed by Rockefeller in the Senate Commerce Committee. The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) is having preliminary discussions with House Democrats about drafting a House version.   

FCC Chairman Genachowski emphasized the public safety aspect of this debate. “We need to act not just because we’ll save money,” Genachowski said. “We need to act because it will save lives.” 

As the debate over establishing a national wireless broadband network for first responders continues, it is necessary to consider the current detriment of public safety in rural areas that still lack a wireless and broadband infrastructure, and those areas that lack access to full 911 services. 

Miranda Kessel has worked in Congress on telecommunications issues and is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University.

 

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