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Mandatory GPS for mobile phones proposed

A discussion document issued through the Ministry of Economic Development on the current and future performance of the emergency-calling system fingers the increasing use of mobile devices and “new” technologies such as voice-over-IP (VoIP) as challenges to the way the system currently operates.

The report points out, in particular, that mobile and VoIP phones do not always allow the location of the call to be pinpointed. An emergency caller may be unaware of their precise location or unable to communicate by voice. New Zealand may have to consider making GPS devices mandatory in mobile phones as the US has, the document suggests.

However, the modification required will be costly, the report warns and most of that cost will fall on the end-user.

A Telecommunication Emergency Service Addresses (TESA) database provides location information for fixed lines, but currently only Telecom and TelstraClear contribute information to the database, though other providers intend to.

VoIP services are often dependent on the integrity of the power supply, the discussion document points out, and this may be cut off by the very circumstances that make the call necessary — for example a natural disaster. The report flags a need to consider “whether independent power sources should be mandatory for VoIP devices.”

The benefits, drawbacks and costs of making SMS emergency messaging more generally available are discussed. This is currently only available for registered deaf and speech-impaired people. SMS uses store-and-forward technology, “so delays can occur,” says the discussion document; in the Christchurch earthquake there were reports that text messages were taking 20 minutes to get through. Acceptance of 111 text messages will require extra resources at emergency service communications centres.

Another priority is to reduce the proportion of 111 calls triggered accidentally or mischievously or terminated before complete information can be gathered. This is currently running at 75 percent. “There are various measures potentially available to reduce the incidence of non-genuine calls, but again with cost, effectiveness and complexity implications,” the report says.

Another section discusses the governance of the emergency calling service. Although there are a number of bodies representing the emergency services, makers of communications devices, telecommunications service providers and other interested parties, “there is no body or agency that is clearly resourced, empowered and accountable for setting overall strategy and end-to-end system architecture and standards; identifying and remedying operational problems and decision-making on enhancements to the 111 system,” the report says.

The document requests responses by March 30. It can be read in its entirety on the Ministry of Economic Development website.

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