Northwest NEWS

June 12, 2000


There are drawbacks to cellular phones

   The article in the June 5th Woodinville Weekly about programs to recycle inactive or old cellular telephones for emergency use did a good job of pointing out the potential benefits. However, the article did not mention a serious drawback to using these telephones.

   Several years ago, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled wireless carriers should allow non-service initialized cellular phones to dial 9-1-1, the public safety community was divided on the issue. The reason is that these phones do not provide any information about the caller, nor do they allow public safety agencies the ability to call the caller back should they be disconnected.

   In many places in the United States, if you call 9-1-1 on a cell phone, your cell phone number and possibly your name will show up at the 9-1-1 center. The phones that are given out as part of these programs are not service-initialized, so there is no phone number associated with them. If, for example, a caller were to call 9-1-1 and for some reason they were disconnected, the 9-1-1 center would not be able to call the person back. This could be a serious problem if the person was being stalked or followed.

   While safety in general is a major motivation for many people buying cellular phones, most don't realize they don't get the same level of service they do when they call from home.

   Here in King and Snohomish Counties, we have a very effective Enhanced 9-1-1 system that provides the address and telephone number for most people calling from a wireline telephone. Callers from cellular phones don't receive the same level of service because their location isn't known. Cellular phones that aren't service-initialized only add to this problem, because in addition, the caller can't be identified or called back.

   While these phones can and do provide an important public safety benefit, there are also serious drawbacks to their use. As with most things, public education is important, but often lacking.

Joe Blaschka, Jr., P.E., Woodinville