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Verizon Demonstrates Why 5G is the Wrong Objective
I was watching TV the other day, and I caught one of Verizon’s new 5G ads targeting public safety, titled “5G Built Right for First Responders.” Having watched with great interest the renewed focus on first responder communications with the advent of FirstNet, my interest was piqued. However, the euphoria was short-lived.
If you watch the 45-second video, you’ll find what Verizon thinks is its big 5G enabler for first responders – the ability to communicate with drones flying over a disaster area.
Drones? This is their solution for locating victims in a disaster? In the meantime, the mobile industry has managed to put amazing location technology in the pockets of hundreds of millions of people, but we’re going to go look for them with drones? Maybe, those victims can order dinner from GrubHub, while they’re waiting for the drone to find them. Of course, you would think that the guys who gave GrubHub the ability to find its customers would see the irony in this, but “self-awareness” has never been a strength in the carrier community.
Send in The Drones (The Clowns Are Driving)
Many of us will recall the tragic story of Kyle Plush: The Ohio teen who was crushed in a parked Honda Odyssey van and died talking to a 911 operator on his cell phone, while police frantically tried to locate him. In a widespread emergency like a flood, hurricane, or tornado, there can be hundreds of structures collapsed, and any number of people trapped. In a saner world, this type of tragedy would spur the type of public outrage that gets things done – things that actually benefit the general public. Instead, we get this drone fantasy.
Now, fixing mobile E-911 doesn’t have anything to do with 5G – that’s the point. The effort to “catch up with Uber” on the location front has been ongoing, but they still don’t have a fix for it. This means the point of Verizon’s drone story might be a simple distraction from the obvious.
Clearly, we can do better when it comes to location technology, as everyone but the phone companies have figured out how to employ. App-based location solutions (i.e., the ones everyone but the carriers are using) use handset-based technologies that combine GPS with Wi-Fi and other metrics to provide device location with far greater accuracy than the network-based techniques the carriers are saddled with.
As I have reported before, carriers are slouching their way toward a similar handset-based solution called device-based hybrid (DBH), which will put their accuracy in the same league with what users have come to expect in the rest of the modern world. This will help, along with more precise ground positioning. The 2015 FCC mobile location requirements include specifications for vertical (i.e., the floor of the building) location, what they refer to as the z-axis.
There are actually two DBH flavors under consideration, Hybridized Emergency Location (HELO) from Apple and the Emergency Location Service (ELS) for Google’s Android. The problem isn’t a lack of technology; it’s the daunting job of getting all the parties working together, including the carriers and device manufacturers, and getting the public safety answering points (PSAPs) in sync (and funded). Current E-911 technology is an artifact of the wired telephone network of the 1970s, and it’s time there was an industry initiative that served a greater purpose than improving online gaming.
Seizing the momentum for DBH deployment, the CTIA announced that “nationwide wireless providers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are adding new location-based tools with existing wireless 9-1-1 location technologies this year” – that was announced back in 2018.
Of course, if you’re looking for a functional communications capability in an emergency, cell phones win hands down. Not only can you call 911, but you also have a phenomenally accurate location beacon, as well as the ability for victims to access information about what’s going on around them. All of that assumes you have cell coverage, and hopefully, a decent view of the sky for GPS.
So, the carriers need to do their real job, which is to restore the cell service in the affected areas as quickly as possible, but we know that people always keep their cell phones with them (particularly, in an emergency), so if you find the cell phones, you find the people.
Battery life is still an issue, but more and more cell phones are coming with water and dust resistance, so at least, they should hold up better in an emergency. What we should be looking at is what else we can do to get cell phones to behave appropriately in an emergency to increase the probability we’ll be able to find people.
In the meantime, while I’m lying under the remains of my collapsed house, maybe I can pass the time with real-time gaming, while I wait for someone to dig me out.
Focus on the Ground, Infrastructure
You might wonder why Verizon would pursue such a flight of fancy as proposing some whacko drone solution, while slow peddling on the better solution that is within their purview. Looking at this from the marketer’s viewpoint, the drone fantasy makes perfect sense – drones are cool, and carriers aren’t! A pitch based on “solid, reliable, and available when you really need it” lacks the pizazz of robotic surgery and self-driving cars, and the civilian population really doesn’t think about emergencies until it’s too late. That’s why we in the industry need to be the adults in the room.
The message here is that the carriers would do well to focus on doing their real jobs and leave the “creative” stuff to people who actually are creative. By the way, if you’re looking for the next Jeff Bezos or Satya Nadella, don’t look in “the phone company.” As I pointed out in my eWeekly post last December, infrastructure is nothing to be embarrassed about. Frankly, if that’s your job, maybe you should focus on doing it well.
Looking past all of their giddy enthusiasm about 5G, Verizon and AT&T should have noticed that their residential PSTN services are rapidly becoming an artifact of a bygone era. The operators need to embrace the fact that they are now responsible for the most important communications infrastructure in the country. Maybe, it’s time that they got their feet back on the ground.