Handset-Based Emergency Location Sees Slow U.S. Adoption Despite Success in Other Countries
Monday, July 02, 2018 | Comments

Handset-based emergency location technologies such as Emergency Location Services (ELS) and Advanced Mobile Location (AML) have found success in Europe and other countries but have yet to gain a foothold in the United States.

AML and ELS are handset-based emergency location services that can supplement existing location services and provide more accurate location information for emergency callers. Previous emergency location technologies could provide a location radius of several kilometers, while in many instances, AML and ELS can narrow that radius down to meters, said Benoit Vivier, public affairs manager for the European Emergency Number Association (EENA).

British Telecom, EE and HTC, developed AML, and the first version was released in 2014. In 2016, Google released ELS, its own implementation of AML. Apple’s iOS supports AML.

EENA has been a driving force behind the adoption of AML and ELS throughout Europe and has performed outreach to countries outside of Europe.

For EENA, the key element of the technologies is that they transmit location data with little effort from the emergency caller. Both AML and ELS are built into a handset’s operating system (OS) and begin transmitting emergency location data when the phone calls a number flagged as an emergency number.

“It’s straightforward, and it saves lives,” said Ben Quay, program director for New Zealand’s Emergency Caller Location Information Service. New Zealand is one of a few countries outside of Europe that has deployed AML and ELS.

Prior to adopting AML and ELS, Quay’s team, under mandate from the New Zealand government to provide more accurate emergency location information, looked at providing location information through apps.

However, emergency location through apps requires a phone user to actively download an app and keep it updated — something many commercial phone users won’t do. In contrast, AML and ELS require no such effort because they are built into the phone’s OS, Vivier said.

ELS went live in New Zealand in May 2017, and AML went live in the country as soon as it was added to iOS.

Both technologies have provided live-saving and operational benefits for New Zealand emergency services, Quay said. On the life-saving side, the technologies generally allow first responders to quickly reach an emergency situation because of the more accurate location. On the operational side, there is increased efficiency because first responders are able to quickly clear calls by spending less time finding the correct location, Quay said.

“New Zealand has showed us that it’s not just a European thing,” Vivier said. “It’s not something that just works in Europe.”

ELS/AML in the U.S.
While AML and ELS have found success in Europe and elsewhere, they have only a small presence in the United States. There are no ELS deployments in the U.S., but Google has performed two pilots and plans to do more testing, said Fiona Lee, Google’s go-to-market lead for ELS.

In June, Apple announced that iOS 12 will allow U.S. iPhone users who call 9-1-1 to automatically and securely share their emergency location information with public-safety answering points (PSAPs).

Apple will use RapidSOS’ NG911 Clearinghouse to provide emergency location information along with its Hybridized Emergency Location (HELO) location estimation technology. HELO uses a variety of on-board technologies such as global navigation satellite system (GNSS), Wi-Fi and cellular receivers to compute a location on device when a user makes a call, an Apple spokeswoman said.

AML is a transport that can help move that HELO information  to a single endpoint, the spokewoman said.

One major reason for the slow growth of the technologies in the U.S. is a fragmented public-safety landscape different from the environments seen in many other countries, said Roger Hixson, technical director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

The U.S. has nearly 6,000 PSAPs, while many other countries have a much smaller number. In New Zealand, for example, emergency calls go to a central operator service that then transfers the call to an appropriate call-taker. This centralized system made deployment and setup of the endpoint required to receive ELS calls simple, Quay said.

In contrast, a single area in the U.S. may have many PSAPs, which would require a large number of endpoints without cooperation among the entities.

NENA does not yet have an official position on either AML or ELS but is supportive of any effort to improve emergency location accuracy, which it sees ELS as doing, NENA CEO Brian Fontes said.

Fontes and Hixson characterized ELS as an emergency location service that uses the phone’s intelligence to generate and provide an emergency location, while describing AML as more of a transport function to provide the information to a PSAP.

When looking at emergency location, it is important to look at it from both the phone user’s and the PSAP’s perspective. The format and method in which a PSAP receives the information is critical because that information must come in a format that is useful and useable by the call-taker, otherwise it does not matter what technology generated the location information, Fontes said.

Another difference for the U.S. is that it is one of the only countries where emergency location is regulated, making some vendors more risk averse when it comes to “market-disrupting” technologies, Google’s Lee said.

AML and ELS have also lacked a strong voice advocating for them in the U.S., Lee added. She attributed AML and ELS’ success in Europe in part to EENA’s vocal and passionate support of the technologies.

Last August, for example, EENA criticized Apple for not supporting AML in its iOS operating system (OS). Apple added AML support in iOS 11.3, which released earlier this year.

Google ELS Pilots
Google’s ELS is based on Fused Location Provider (FLP), the process that generates the blue location dot in Google Maps. FLP takes information from cell towers, GPS, sensors in the phone and crowdsourced Wi-Fi and fuses together all that information. The fused information is then run through “special sauce” algorithms, and a device location is generated, Lee said.

Once the location is generated, it is then sent to an endpoint maintained by a Google partner and passed along to the PSAP. Google provides the endpoints to its partners for free, but an organization must meet a variety of requirements to qualify as a partner.

Two endpoint options are available to partner organizations: data short message service (SMS) and HTTPS. As each endpoint type has its strengths and weaknesses, it is up to the particular partner to determine which endpoint fits its needs, Lee said.

With data SMS, a phone does not need to have a data connection to transmit the location, making it useful for rural areas with poor coverage, and data SMS is generally more reliable than HTTPS, Lee said. However, it can be more difficult to set up a gateway for data SMS, and while the information is not visible to other apps, it is still sent unencrypted over the network.

On the flipside, HTTPS is more secure and can send a larger amount of information because it is not limited by the text restrictions of SMS, but it does require a data connection for the phone and is less reliable on a bad connection, Lee said.

Google is willing to partner with a variety of organizations including government, mobile network operators (MNO) and public-safety vendors but looks for partners that can provide a good footprint for ELS service. While setting up one endpoint is not feasible in the U.S., Google hopes to minimize the number of endpoints necessary for ELS service, Lee said.

For example, a single PSAP would not provide enough of a footprint to cover Google’s requirements, but several PSAPs banding together in a region would provide the necessary footprint, Lee said.

Other partner requirements include that the partner be financially stable, technically capable of setting up and maintaining an endpoint, willing to share the endpoint with nearby PSAPs, won’t fuse the ELS information with any other location information and motivated to offer ELS services for free instead of trying to make a profit off of them.

In both ELS pilots Google has performed, ELS on average provided more accurate location information than provided by the existing emergency location system. Both pilots were five-week pilots that occurred across five states in areas with about 2.5 million phone users.

Google selected two public-safety vendors with different emergency location models — West and RapidSOS — to perform the pilots. West sells its routing and location services and solutions directly to carriers, while RapidSOS’ NG911 Clearinghouse bypasses the carrier and transmits its information directly to the PSAP using CAD or geographic information systems (GIS).

In the West pilot, only an HTTPS endpoint was used and the PSAPs did not receive the ELS location, Lee said. Instead, West evaluated the location information provided by the carrier’s existing solution against the ELS location information to determine if it would have been more accurate. The RapidSOS test used both a data SMS and an HTTPS endpoint, and PSAPs received a package of both the legacy emergency service and the ELS location.

In the West test, it was determined that ELS would have provided “significantly more accurate location” 46 percent of the time, and 34 percent of the time, it would have provided that more accurate location earlier in the call, Lee said. In the RapidSOS pilot, average uncertainty for ELS was 49 meters, compared with 196 meters for the legacy system, and uncertainty was less than 50 meters 80 percent of the time, compared with 65 percent for the legacy system.

Google also participated in the recent 9-1-1 location test beds in San Francisco and Atlanta, and testing showed that ELS met or exceeded the FCC’s location accuracy benchmark requirements for 2022. Under more stringent 9-1-1 location rules the FCC passed in 2015, by 2022, carriers must be able to deliver a dispatchable location within 50 meters of a caller for 80 percent of all wireless 9-1-1 calls.

Google plans to continue educating people about ELS and likely will perform more pilots, Lee said. She said that the U.S. would likely see its first actual ELS deployment sometime in the next year.

“Despite all these challenges, we really want to deploy ELS in the U.S.,” Lee said. “We really believe that ELS is much more scalable and more robust than what currently exists in the U.S.”

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