In this case, 911 proved just about useless: The police had no idea where Wilson was calling from, and neither did she. They spent the better part of the next 24 hours searching in vain, combing the town block by block while precious time ticked away. A new technology which would have told police precisely where Wilson was hadn't arrived in time to help.
Place a 911 call from a land line, and authorities know exactly where the call came from. But place an emergency call from a cell phone, and wireless carriers can give police only the roughest idea where to look. In Wilson's case, Sprint was able to identify the cell tower that relayed her first call at 9:20 p.m Aug. 4. That gave police a circle to search that had a radius of one mile, according to Albany public information officer Marilyn Smith. But Wilson said she was in a moving car - so police within a 75-mile radius were alerted.
The police chief came in during the middle of the night. Officers worked overtime looking for Wilson. Sprint technicians worked through the night. Local TV stations broadcast the unfolding drama.
"We kept running into dead ends," assistant chief of police Don O'Malley said.
As the night wore on, and Wilson kept calling, authorities became suspicious. Seven calls and 15 hours later, Wilson's drama was declared a hoax. No cell phone - and certainly not her older model, as determined by Sprint - could last that long without a recharge. And despite her claims she was on the move, all the cell calls were routed from that original tower.
The woman identifying herself as Wilson was never found - though she did break an Oregon law prohibiting illegal use of 911, and she did send authorities on a wild goose chase.
Experts say similar, if less dramatic, searches are carried out daily. Perhaps 100,000 people a day dial 911 from a wireless phone, with that number on the rise, and 30 percent are unable to tell authorities where they're calling from. But such confusion will end when a new technology called wireless geolocation is in place. By marrying a Global Positioning System (GPS) device with a wireless phone, authorities will be able to pinpoint within about five meters where a wireless phone is when it's turned on.
It's a bit of a shotgun wedding. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that cell companies have such pinpoint accuracy by October 2001. So a fleet of software and chip makers, including Lucent Technologies Inc., are lining up to perform the ceremony. In the meantime, wireless firms are discovering that a cell phone with GPS attached can do a lot more than just dial 911.
Like car navigation systems, it could offer directions, even to walkers. It could point out nearby restaurants, even offer up coupons for pizza places down the block. But that's just the beginning. Researchers at Lucent's Bell Labs foresee location units being handed to children so parents always know where they are - or criminals, under house arrest, for similar reasons. It could even be used to recover stolen cars or laptop computers.
Steve Poizner, CEO of Snap-Track, which also makes the GPS-wireless technology, said one of the more whimsical applications of such a service might involve a family-and-friends circle.
"Imagine you walk into a shopping center - this could tell you which of your friends are nearby and where they are," he said.
Poizner's company has been at it since 1995, and he says he'll be selling the product commercially in Japan through NTT's Dokomo before the year is out. U.S. sales are expected to start next year. That's just the first salvo in the coming battle to offer these wild personal location services. Battle lines are already being drawn: Snap-Track also has agreements with Motorola and Texas Instruments Inc. Lucent has a deal with Qualcomm Inc. And another player in the space, SiRF Technology Inc., has a deal with Ericsson.
How it works
Merely slapping a GPS receiver on the back of a cell phone wouldn't do the trick, for several reasons. Chief among them - it would double the cost and really shrink battery life.
"And the real killer is, GPS doesn't work indoors," said Lucent's Bob Richton.
So both Lucent and Snap-Track have designed scaled-down, limited-function GPS chips that cost "a few dollars" and need little power. And thanks to a boost from a network of larger GPS devices scattered around the country, the devices achieve about 100 times the sensitivity of a stand-alone GPS device, according to Lucent's Giovanni Vannucci.
GPS locates by analyzing repeated patterns during a 1/50 of a second interval, he said. The limited-function GPS Lucent developed can integrate intervals of up to one second, dramatically increasing sensitivity. That means it works inside many structures, including some high-rise buildings.
But the systems are not flawless, says SiRF founder Kanwar Chadha. They won't always work in high-rise buildings, and they offer only limited altitude information. So if someone dialed 911 from the 20th floor of a 50-story building, police would probably only know that the person was somewhere between the 20th and 25th floors. "Guaranteeing 100 percent positioning information is not practical," Chadha said. "When you get inside a 50-story building, that's a different beast."
SiRF's founder says his designers have actually discovered a way to include a full-fledged GPS in the handset by integrating GPS software into the wireless phone chip. Chadha says Ericsson will start selling phones with his chips by early next year.
"Our architecture is more flexible. (Lucent's and Snap-Track's) approach is more the dumb terminal approach," he said. SiRF's GPS phones won't need a boost from a network of larger GPS devices. "'Autonomous mode' is really important to us."
Meanwhile, anonymous mode is important to many privacy advocates, who think they have something to fear from a technology that allows government agencies to track people's movements - even if those people are dialing 911. Bell Labs researchers say their modified solution eliminates that concern.
"That's why I like this technology. It only works when you want it to work," Vannucci said. If the locating technology is in the handset, users can turn it on or off when they want, he said.
Maybe, maybe not
Not all proposed solutions to the FCC requirement require adding GPS to a mobile phone.
With some modifications to existing cell towers, a triangulation method could also be used to pinpoint caller location - without any hardware change to the phone.
Handset GPS advocates say that solution raises major privacy concerns, since users could not turn off the tracking mechanism. And of course, it would come without the added gee-whiz services.
But such a "network-based" solution might still prove the most attractive, considering the upgrade of 911 services already under way has been costly and time consuming. Between 5,000 and 8,000 local, county and state police call centers require hardware upgrades to receive advanced 911 information. And while 27 states have figured out who's paying for the upgrades, the rest have not.
So adding even more variables, which might delay upgraded cell 911 services even longer, may not satisfy regulators.
"Hopefully the FCC will be flexible," Lucent's Richton said.
While commercial trials of such advanced wireless services are set to start next year, availability will be severely limited at first, thanks to the variety of standards and hardware being used in the wireless world, according to Kathryn Condello, vice president of industry operations for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
"With all the choices of technology a consumer has, the companies have to meet thousands of requirements (to hit the 911 deadline). Digital, analog. Three-year-old phones. They have to meet them all," she said. "So you can't make the leap that because we do 911 we're going to do all these golly gee whiz services."
In fact, she said, most consumers will have enhanced 911 service on their cell phone well before they can get a pizza coupon from it.