May 10, 2022 - Technology

Exclusive: AT&T launches new 911 location service

Illustration of phone with siren emoji.
Illustration: Allie Carl

AT&T said Tuesday a new nationwide service will route 911 calls from its wireless subscribers to the closest dispatch center.

Why it matters: 911 calls from wireless phones are typically routed based on the closest cell tower, which means that sometimes callers are transferred from one dispatch center to another when they seek help, introducing potential delays.

What's happening: The new service will more quickly and accurately identify the location of a wireless 911 call and deliver it to the correct call center, AT&T said in a statement.

  • The location-based routing, which uses technology from Intrado that relies on GPS and other data, can identify a device's location within 50 meters.
  • Calls that are routed based on the location of cell towers, which can cover up to a 10-mile radius, can cause delays in emergency response if they are made in border areas where jurisdictions may overlap.

The big picture: The nation's 911 system has struggled to advance at the speed of current technology.

  • Congress contemplated a $10 billion upgrade for next-generation 911 — to allow dispatch centers to receive texts and videos and seamlessly share data between them.
  • Lawmakers ultimately slashed that funding as part of a doomed attempt to advance the Build Back Better Act last year.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission sought comment in 2018 on location-based routing of 911 calls but did not adopt rules.

  • In 2020, T-Mobile announced location-based routing of emergency calls, but it is not yet available nationwide.
  • AT&T says its service will be rolled out to all customers by the end of June.
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