Use of Russian System Will Help, Not Hinder, First Responders

The U.S. cellular industry is embracing navigation satellite technology as it seeks to comply with newly adopted Federal Communications Commission accuracy standards for position-location data transmitted by mobile phones making emergency calls.

But the proposed solution has aroused controversy because it relies in part on the Glonass satellite system owned by Russia, whose relations with the United States have worsened substantially in the last year.

The FCC’s Emergency 911, or E911, standards, to be phased in over several years, are intended to address complaints from emergency-response personnel who say they are often unable to locate the source of distress calls, most of which are now made from indoors using cellphones. The problem most often occurs when the calls are made from inside multistory buildings.

24-satellite GPS constellation
Twenty-four-satellite GPS constellation. Credit: U.S.

The solution favored by the top U.S. cellular carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — would rely on both the U.S. GPS and Russian Glonass positioning, navigation and timing satellite constellations. Used in concert with wireless technology, the satellite signals would help pinpoint the location of emergency callers, giving first responders a better chance of arriving at the scene at the earliest possible time.

In comments to the FCC, advocates of the plan say using both constellations would increase the reliability and accuracy of the E911 system. The reason is simple: More satellites mean better accuracy and increased chances that there will be at least one within view of any location at any given time.

But at least one company, TruePosition, which is pushing a solution based on terrestrial technology, urged the FCC to reject the use of Glonass, citing national security and other concerns.

Supporters of the satellite-based solution, including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, say that’s a red herring. CTIA, a trade association that represents the wireless industry, went so far as to call TruePosition’s national security argument a “bogeyman” and a “distraction” designed to undermine the E911 standards.

TruePosition nonetheless has found a powerful ally in Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, who says he’s worried that integrating Glonass into the E911 system would give Russia a means of leverage against the U.S. government.

But even if Moscow were so inclined, its ability to make mischief out of a Glonass role in the E911 system seems pretty limited.

In a Jan. 21 letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Mr. Rogers suggested the plan would put Russia in position to hold U.S. emergency services hostage. He also asked to what extent the Defense Department might rely on the E911 system and urged that the use of Glonass be rejected.

It’s not difficult to understand the hawkish lawmaker’s reflexive opposition to the idea of integrating a Russian military system into U.S. emergency response networks. Moscow’s behavior, especially in the last year, has justifiably made lots of people wary, triggering, for example, the move to end the Pentagon’s use of Russian-built engines on its satellite launchers.

But even if Moscow were so inclined, its ability to make mischief out of a Glonass role in the E911 system seems pretty limited. Even in a scenario raised by Mr. Rogers, the E911 system would be no worse off than if Glonass were kept out of it in the first place. That’s hardly a recipe for blackmail.

Moreover, Glonass need not be a crucial or even important part of a long-term solution. Initial global service from Europe’s Galileo navigation system could be become available next year, followed by full service from a 30-satellite constellation as early as 2020.

Chipmakers, meanwhile, are increasingly turning out products compatible with multiple global satellite navigation systems — including China’s Beidou — and most U.S. cellphones will incorporate this technology within a few years. Given the fact that U.S. cellular service contracts typically make it economically attractive to replace phones every two years or so, there’s no reason for any substantial lag between Galileo service availability and its integration into the emergency caller location system.

The FCC did not rule on the use of Glonass, saying that determination will be made with input from other agencies, presumably including the Defense Department. If the Pentagon or intelligence community finds legitimate national security issues with using Glonass, then obviously it should be rejected. But the idea that Russia could extract concessions from the U.S. government by threatening to block access to Glonass doesn’t pass the smell test, especially with initial availability of global Galileo services just around the corner.