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AT&T's New Tech Means Better Location Data, Routing for 911

The technology will use GPS data from mobile devices to route calls to the nearest 911 dispatch center, making it more likely the call goes to the right place. And dispatchers won't have to do anything to get it.

Soon, 911 dispatch centers nationwide will have better location data in hand for many mobile phone callers — at least, those using AT&T.

The telecommunications firm has begun rolling out new technology called location-based routing that will mean using data from mobile devices themselves to establish location. That means calls will be routed to the nearest public safety answering point (PSAP), and the dispatcher will be able to establish where the caller is within 50 feet of their mobile device.

Today, most of the time, a cellphone call is routed to a PSAP based on which cell tower the call is routed through. That might not actually be the closest dispatch center — especially in places close to county borders or outside big cities.

“You have a tower on a border location, and study this tower by tower, and analyze what percentage of the calls are going to what 911 centers or PSAPs, and whoever has the most calls, you route all the calls to that center,” said Kurt Mills, executive director of Snohomish County, Wash., 911.

Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, has frequently dealt with callers being routed to the wrong PSAP. But Snohomish County 911 became the first dispatch organization in the country to use the new technology and saw a decline in the need to transfer callers.
A map from October 2021 showing 911 calls north of Seattle that would have been routed to the wrong dispatch center without location-based routing. Courtesy of Kurt Mills, Snohomish County 911
“Every 911 call that's transferred is delayed,” Mills said. “But it's also really frustrating for the caller to have to repeat themselves and the information they just shared, oftentimes in a crisis, to another operator.”

Aside from simply getting the call to the right place, it will also give more precise location data to dispatchers. Using cell towers only allows dispatchers to narrow down the caller’s location to within a 10-mile radius, according to AT&T. Establishing a 50-meter radius, as AT&T said the new technology will allow for, is a small fraction of that distance.

There are a number of reasons it’s important to get a caller’s location from somewhere other than the caller’s mouth; perhaps most commonly, the caller might be in a place they’re unfamiliar with.

Location-based routing, which AT&T developed in partnership with Intrado, works by collecting information before the call is routed, including GPS data from the device itself. That information is available to PSAPs already through a number of technologies available on the market, including from Apple and Google, but importantly, location-based routing uses the existing dispatch and telecommunications infrastructure without PSAPs needing to do anything.

“Those who operate 911 call centers won’t need to take any action or make any changes with location-based routing,” an AT&T spokesperson wrote in an email to Government Technology. “Once it’s launched in each region, it will automatically work.”

As of now, the technology will only work for AT&T customers. But Mills hopes that will change in the future.

“I’m really hopeful that the other cell providers will take advantage of this technology as well and roll this out,” he said. “This will have an impact on people's lives every single day.”

The technology has already been rolled out in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and Guam.

It will be rolled out in the rest of the U.S. on the following schedule:

  • May 16: Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin
  • May 23: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
  • June 6: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah
  • June 13: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma
  • June 27: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.