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Consultation opens on tracking mobile 999 callers' locations

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Two thirds of emergency calls are made from mobile phones, many of them from people who don't know where they are, and Ofcom wants to know if we should be tracking their locations.

When a call is made to 999 (or 112, or 911, depending on your neck of the woods) the communication provider is required to provide the caller's location. For fixed phones and proper VoIP (think Vonage, not Skype) that's the registered address, which should be within 20 metres or so of the caller.

Yet for mobiles it’s the cell site which is reported back, and that could easily cover a 20-kilometre square area. Ofcom wants to know if this imprecision is a problem.

The UK public makes 36 million 999 calls a year, of which two thirds - 25 million - are placed from hard-to-locate mobile phones.

Distressed mobile callers can spend an additional three minutes trying to explain where they are, with 330,000 of them having no idea of their exact location and so unable to convey it.

Even more worrying is the 36,500 calls where a "long search" was needed to identify the caller's location, with the caller not being located for up to 30 minutes thanks to the lack of accuracy in call ID data.

European law mandates mobile operators to deliver the cell location of emergency callers, but Ofcom is interested to know if anyone thinks we should move further, or faster, than continental regulation demands – and exactly how we might go about doing that.

The regulator commissioned a technical report on the subject (pdf, long but with big writing and 1.5 line spacing) which looked at handset and network-based alternatives. Network-based call location is better, but expensive, With operators already putting in 4G kit it's going to be tough to ask them to upgrade again. It might be possible with a software upgrade, but even that will cost operators money.

A mobile app might seem ideal, and BT knocked one together as a demonstration, but constnat tracking drains the battery (potentially making the emergency call impossible, as Ofcom notes) while firing up the GPS when a call is made takes time, which will, in turn, slow the arrival of help.

App-based solutions are also unlikely to work across network operators, even within the UK – 999 calls can be made onto any network, regardless of the customer's contract – not to mention discriminating against those without smartphones.

America is getting round these technicalities by mandating location data be provided to an accuracy of "50 meters for 67 percent of calls, and 150 metres for 80 percent of calls" by 2018, without commenting on how network operators are expected to achieve that, and Ofcom is curious if stakeholders feel a similar approach would work on this side of the pond.

But detailed tracking is a touchy subject at the moment, and while Europeans are happy (or unaware) that the police can get their rough location from their network operator they might not be so pleased with fine-grained following, and as Ofcom notes:

"Should citizens disable or interfere with such mechanisms (e.g. by disabling or interfering with the GNSS capability in a handset) due to concerns over personal information sharing, then the benefits associated with such solutions may diminish."

Sometimes we like our privacy but sometimes it's better to share. The problem is balancing the two.

Bootnote

Ofcom's consultation (pdf, easy reading) is open until December 23, with the regulator particularly interested in hearing from the network operators who'll probably end up paying for any implemented solution.

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